Redhouse's 'The Penguin Tango' is the start of something bigger

Review: A flamboyant, whimsical tale still in its infancy hits its stride and sparks important social conversations.

Editor's note: This review originally appeared at Green Room Reviews on October 25, 2014.

Homosexual penguins, a flamingo dressed like Elton John and a polar bear wearing ballet flats are just a few of the characters you’ll see frenetically flouncing around the stage at the Redhouse Arts Center’s endearing production of The Penguin Tango.

Playwright and director Stephen Svodoba warmly welcomed the audience at Friday night’s production.

The plot is based off the story of actual penguins Roy and Silo. This same-sex male pair mated at New York City’s Central Park Zoo. They were eventually given the egg of another couple that could not hatch two at a time and they raised the chick, Tango, as their own.

The set was simple. The Redhouse’s intimate stage was transformed into a penguin exhibit. Rock formations sat on stage right, while stage left had a recreation of a flimsy plastic door that animals use to go into their indoor areas at zoo exhibits.

The Penguin Tango, of course, takes many artistic liberties from Roy and Silo’s real life story. The penguins read Cosmopolitan and wear makeup. The set has couches and armchairs on which the penguins sit. The costumes are made of intermixed black and white clothes that reflect each character’s shtick.

Monitors above the stage displayed the titles of each small chapter of the play. An announcer’s voice, with a thick German accent, sets the scene as a penguin exhibit at the Bremerhaven Zoo.

This weekend's production, which felt straight out of an experimental Chelsea theater, was without a doubt over-the-top. Within the first few minutes, Wendell –- played by Steve Hayes -– came on stage and immediately broke the fourth wall by giving the audience a tour of the exhibit and introductions of the different penguin characters. For two full minutes, Wendell felt forcedly flamboyant and overacted as he presented the different characters and his communist ideals. But my doubts soon disappeared, as the whimsical tone of the play began to fit all together. In fact, Hayes’s performance as Wendell was outstanding, his jokes perfectly delivered throughout the night.

What I had briefly mistaken for overacting was rather a means of presenting characters that were larger than life. Laura Austin dazzled as Dia –- a self-described “chick-making machine” female penguin from Sweden who is brought in to break up Roy and Silo. Other penguin characters included the aggressive Gomez; the Shakespeare-spouting Giovanni; the oddball Curly; Wendell’s partner, Cass; and the pair at the center of it all, Royale and Silo. The penguins were visited by flamboyant flamingo Phillipe and prancing polar “bear,” Gus –- a play off of the gay culture definition of a rugged, hairy man. Yes, the characters were loud and large, but every single actor on the stage committed.

The campiness of the play helps bolster the social message it is trying to drive home. The play, through penguin mating habits, breaks down traditional notions of gender and sexuality. The characters initially seem to embody stereotypes of the “sassy gay,” but then progressively defy this trope as they transform from cheeky penguins and come to represent real people, with complicated sexual and gender identities. Their struggles in the zoo –- as zookeepers use the “pray-the-gay-away” type conversion therapy to try to force Royale to mate with Dia instead of Cass –- mirror societal forces that oppress non-heteronormative people.

The story, while staying lighthearted, tackles themes like societal induced sexual self-loathing and fear of being different, but, above all, it tells a straightforward story of enduring love.

In typical Redhouse fashion, the production is more than just a show; it is meant to promote dialogue and raise awareness. Different speakers will attend each night to participate in post-show talkbacks.

The Redhouse’s undertaking of this project is commendable. Syracuse is not Chicago, Los Angeles nor New York City, but the success of this production, proves that progressive, experimental shows like this need not be confined to those markets. The Penguin Tango, which has only been performed at the New York Fringe Festival prior to this production, feels like the start of something bigger: a play that could be successful and spark important conversations.

Photo by Keirsten Burrows

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