Gay penguin play delights in San Francisco

Marc Acito's play follows a gay penguin family at Central Park Zoo

Graham Haught/File

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When’s the last time you saw an award-winning play about gay chinstrap penguins? Luckily for you, “Birds of a Feather” is playing in San Francisco and can help you cross that one off your list — and it’s delightful. Written by Marc Acito, the play examines issues surrounding same-sex marriage, different kinds of families and the rarity of lasting love. It accomplishes that weighty task with a cast of only four actors taking on multiple roles, most of which are birds. The result is unexpectedly subtle and funny in the right places, with a few moments aimed straight at your heart.

The set is small and unassuming, and that aesthetic is echoed in the costumes and props, which are improvised objects meant to suggest rather than approximate. The first player to appear uses a curling iron as a microphone. The gay penguin couple handle a motorcycle helmet and a soccer ball as though they were eggs. Costumes are quick-change and color-coordinated to turn penguins into hawks and a zookeeper into a TV personality. These transformations are achieved for the most part through the versatility of the actors, who turn in such varied performances that the final bows are a shocking reminder of their number.

San Francisco darling David Levine shines as Roy and Pale Male, playing opposite ends of the spectrum of avian gender expression with bluster, bravado and an affected femininity that is both hilarious and moving. Luke Taylor performs a similar swap as Silo and Lola, playing a conflicted male penguin and a high-maintenance female hawk in brilliant tandem. Elissa Beth Stebbins appears as the zookeeper and real-life news correspondent Paula Zahn, delivering an accented and utterly human performance in two distinct registers. She is appealing and vulnerable as the zookeeper, and her monologues about loneliness needle the audience with palpable yearning. Her Paula Zahn is haughty and rich yet wounded. Stebbins appears opposite Christopher Morrell, who gives a killer performance as a bird-watching, wise-cracking, wonder-struck New Yorker. Although he plays a collection of the smallest roles in the play, Morrell does everything he can to steal the show. His portrayal of a man fascinated by the small good things in cityscape nature is a disarming and notable standout.

Director Tom Bruett made certain choices in the direction of the play to artificially weight certain scenes and lighten others, influenced by the use of dramatic lighting and projected images. Characters’ reflections on the events of 9/11 are beautifully written and help explain why this play won the Helen Hayes award in 2012. However, these scenes are accompanied by a hushed isolation that separates them from the rest of the show. If presented differently, the narrative could be more cohesive. Overall, the direction of the show is not intrusive, but these moments are significant.

Some of the text of the play reflects a time and place outside of San Francisco in 2013, when arguments about the factual events leading to the publication of the book “And Tango Makes Three,” speculations about queer theory and old-school arguments about gay people were relevant and gripping. These lines are of obvious importance to the play, but they have little punch in the New Conservatory Theatre Center venue. Despite the play’s lack of edginess, it is an enjoyable show and suitable for a varied audience. The performances of the four actors elevate the material out of children’s literature and into thoughtful and charming theater. Beyond the silliness and the queer theory 101, behind the hawks and penguins and the changing New York skyline, “Birds of a Feather” strives to remind us that love is a rare bird. It unquestionably succeeds in that.

 

Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].