Love is a rare bird. Maybe it’s as majestic as a hawk, or as utilitarian as a penguin, but it is always unique, and all metaphorical bird-watchers would do well to seek it out. So proclaims playwright Mark Acito in “Birds of a Feather,” currently playing at the Greenhouse, and directed with charm by Jacob Harvey. Harvey, who has worked tirelessly over the past few years to establish an arts incubator at the Greenhouse, has created space for new works and electric, engaging performances — some of which appear in this production. “Birds of a Father” is touching without being sentimental, and it is humane as well as being highly theatrical. The show is a rare bird of creative vision, and while its script is perhaps outdated for 2018, its thematic concerns about identity and attention are as ageless as animal nature itself.
Silo (Aaron Kirby) and Roy (Paul Michael Thomson) are two male penguins living in the New York City Central Park Zoo. They are in love, and as such, they struggle with familiar issues of coupledom. Silo wants more space to find himself, while Roy wants a child. The “featherless birds” who watch them all day long are fascinated by their romance, and when their zookeeper (Marika Mashburn) gifts them a neglected egg, the two find themselves the subject of increased scrutiny, and new parents to a little chick named Tango. Their story is published as a children’s book, “And Tango Makes Three,” which soon becomes the most banned book in the United States. As the chinstrap penguins deal with infamy, two hawks deal with paparazzi troubles high above Central Park. They are Pale Male (Thomson) and Lola (Kirby), whose heterosexual courtship is of less interest than their ability to build a nest on a high rise in New York City. They, too, are struggling with their relationship, and how to connect after having babies. Down on the street, a lonely birder (Abu Ansari) watches them, while inside a nearby penthouse, a wealthy couple (Ansari and Mashburn) starts divorce proceedings.
Acito’s script is a sharp mosaic, with a daffy sense of humor connecting all the animals onstage. By taking the birds’ concerns seriously, he sheds light on the ridiculousness of human behavior, and spotlights the ludicrousness of looking at gay penguins as controversial in any way. Acito’s insight expands into examining how seeking excessive attention outside one’s relationship can destroy the very foundations of that connection — or at the very least, confuse one’s identity quite a bit. The only tricky issue with Acito’s work is that his sexual politics inadvertently dismiss those who don’t apply labels to their desires, while conflating sexual expression with gender in moments that created confusion for me as a viewer. That may be the age of the script showing; as far as I can tell, it was first produced in 2011. Whatever the reason, the overall blend of stories works quite well.
Harvey’s direction is breezy when it needs to be, and controlled and quiet when frivolity shifts to conflict. If you had told me at the start of the evening that I would be rooting for two penguins to work out their marital problems … I would have said that sounds like me, because penguins are flipping adorable. But Harvey gives his actors room to explore existential concerns, never asking them to drop their birdlike stances, so that you recognize the humanity in the characters only because you are forced to understand the issues they face as birds. It’s a neat trick; Harvey and his movement director Nick Thornton create distinct worlds for the hawks and penguins, and the actors deserve special praise for the maintenance of their individual personas, as they switch between species. Kirby and Thomson are heartfelt as penguins, and goofy as all get out as hawks. Their human counterparts also switch a variety of roles, all of which Mashburn and Ansari master with aplomb.
There’s much to recommend in “Birds of a Feather.” If you’re searching for a rare bird of a theatrical experience, you don’t need to look much further than the Greenhouse.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Give me all your jokes, romance, and existential angst, penguins!
DIE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”
Show: “Birds of a Feather”
Company: Greenhouse Theater Center
Venue: Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave)