Review: ‘Birds of a Feather’ at New Conservatory Theatre Center

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: *****)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“Birds of a Feather” plays at New Conservatory Theatre Center May 17 through June 29, 2013.)

Remember the gay penguins of Central Park Zoo? Two male penguins, Roy and Silo, were noted by zookeepers back in 1998, when they participated in courting rituals with one another, usually reserved for males and females. They followed that up by attempting to hatch a rock! Curious, the zookeepers provided them with an egg from a heterosexual couple (they were having difficulty hatching two eggs at once) and the male birds incubated it and raised the chick. Astonishingly, the female chick (whom the keepers named Tango) went on to mate with a female penguin in another gay coupling.

Playwright Marc Acito‘s award winning “Birds of a Feather” cleverly imagines how this story might be told from the penguins’ perspective. The result is quite funny.

Acito uses his premise to explore many of the issues arising around the subject of gay marriage, nature versus nurture, and queer theory. His scatter gun script sometimes wades in shallow sit-com territory, but there are plenty of insights and clever jokes to keep things moving along nicely. He manages to make some gay cliches seem fresh and funny, as when one of the penguins reveals a preference for show tunes over more typically guttural penguin mating calls. This is not a profound play and audiences shouldn’t expect too much but, for what it is, it is very charming frivolity.

New Conservatory Theatre Center presents Marc Acito's "Birds of a Feather".
New Conservatory Theatre Center presents Marc Acito’s “Birds of a Feather”.

In addition to telling the story of Roy and Silo, the script tracks the history of the (real life) children’s book about the birds, “And Tango Makes Three” which has been one of the most banned books of the past few years. He also incorporates the (true) story of two hawks nesting and forming a family in one of New York’s most expensive residential buildings.

Luke Taylor and David Levine as both the gay penguins and the heterosexual hawks are hysterical, and do a marvelous job of differentiating their bird characters. Levine is especially funny as the macho celebrity hawk, “Pale Male”, providing many of the evening’s best laughs.

A romantic subplot involving Christopher Morrel as a shy birder and Elissa Beth Stebbins as a somewhat nerdish Zookeeper is also engaging.

Further complications involve the troubled marriage of Paula Zahn. Less successful, but intriguing, are some reflections on the tragedy of 9/11 which seem to be from another type of play altogether.

Nothing here will be new to San Francisco audiences, who may find this gentle defense of gay families to be a bit old hat. Still, it is funny and pleasing and the performances charm. This would be a great play to take your elderly visiting Aunt from the midwest who means well, but is perhaps still confused about how to think of gay marriage. She’ll enjoy herself, maybe open her mind a bit, and you’ll have a good time too.

For further information, click here.

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“Birds of a Feather”  by Marc Acito, produced by New Conservatory Theatre Center. Director: Tom Bruett. Set Design: Dean Shibuya. Costume Design: Wes Crain. Video Projectin: Lauren Soldano. Lighting Design: Molly Stewart-Cohn. 

Zookeeper/Paula Zahn: Elissa Beth Stebbins. Silo/Lola: Luke Taylor. Roy/Pale Male: David Levine. Birder: Christopher Morrell.

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