Chicago Theatre Review: BIRDS OF A FEATHER (Greenhouse Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on May 1, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


The animal realm (we won’t say kingdom) fairly teems with same-sex survival. In all, over 1,500 species experiment with alternative lifestyles: Sapphic seagulls, flaming flamingos, bisexual bottle-nosed dolphins, gender-bending giraffes, white whales, and — in Birds of a Feather — two gay birds. This Chicago premiere from Greenhouse Theater Center both celebrates and exploits Roy and Silo: Flightless and famous, these male chinstrap penguins met and merged at the Central Park Zoo in 1998, attracting crowds as they went from hatching a rock to nurturing a real egg that had been abandoned by its straight progenitors. That fledgling became a female named Tango. Their liaison was, as they say, a tabloid sensation.

Because it celebrated two fathers and no mom, the story of their unconventional parenthood — And Tango Made Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Farnell — became the fourth most banned book between 2000 and 2009. The tuxedoed pair were not, bigots believed, the right role models for impressionable children.

But, wait, there’s more! In 1993 (and, later, when NYC needed consolation after 9/11), two other birds of a different feather attracted interest: Heterosexual hawks, Pale Male and Lola nested on the 12th floor of a tony New York apartment building occupied by the likes of Mary Tyler Moore, Paula Zahn and Richard Cohen. Alas, the snobs who infested the building had their nest destroyed in 2004 — but, reportedly, Pale Male found other digs and still soars today.

Anyway, this elaborate exposition is the backdrop for Marc Acito’s playful treatment, a nature comedy not half as harsh as Animal Farm and almost as cutesy as Finding Nemo. It contrasts very different avian couples, in species and gender — as well as two humans, “featherless birds” (a zookeeper and a birder) who have their own emotional baggage, attachment challenges, and commitment issues.

However charmingly staged by Jacob Harvey, the result is not as fun as it should be. Overlong and glib, cloyingly anthropomorphic, and insistently and distractingly freighted with “birdbrain” humor, this two-hour interspecies romp can’t have fun without “fowling” it, so to speak. We endure such Gotham excess as celebrity jokes about vacuous Paula Zahn (Marika Mashburn) and her faithless beau Richard Cohen (Abu Ansari). Worse, in truly bad taste, Acito actually indulges in sentimental speculation about “jumpers” who held hands as they leapt from the burning Twin Towers. No, this was not romance; it was screaming desperation. Besides, it didn’t happen.

At the show’s center are two attractive young actors — Aaron Kirby and Paul Michael Thomson — who deftly play both the paternal zoo penguins and the penthouse hawks. Thomson presents the dominant partners, the “Broadway baby” penguin Roy (who lives for “krill and showtunes”) and the adulterously adventurous hawk Pale Male (as well as the Tango chick). Kirby depicts the gentler spouses, submissive hawk Lola, and the demure domesticator Silo. Both college-age actors are thespian naturals, effortlessly versatile in timing, mugging, joking and movement.

Preening themselves with comic cliches despite any switches in species, both couples — as well as the humans who offer standup-slick stories about relationship troubles — carp, quibble, squabble, make up or break up. All of them learn that “Love is a rare bird” and that you can ban books but not behavior.

But Acito isn’t content with a vaudevillian version of zoological diversity. He has an axe to grind. It falls, hard, at the end when a restless and faithless Silo tells his astonished mate Roy why he’s leaving; “Who the hell wants to be gay?” (emphasis added). Unchallenged either as self-hate or as a false smear, the remark instantly spoils and sours both script and show. And, in a supposedly happy ending, Birds ends with Tango telling her remaining dad that she’s found a significant other and, breeders rejoice, the mate is straight!

Acito’s too-clever concoction suffers from a maddeningly inappropriate inconsistency in tone (lurching from sitcom to tragedy), romantic relativism (trivializing biology for easy laffs), an ambivalence that amounts to a compassion deficit, heavy-handed stereotyping (both in Silo and the rancidly homophobic Pale Male), and ornithological overkill.

Jacob Harvey’s endearing cast, a warmly winning quartet, are hard pressed to overcome the spiteful slams and nested nastiness of a play that perversely poops on its promise. Defying gravity, Birds clips its own wings.

photos by Liz Lauren

Birds of a Feather
Greenhouse Theater Center (Upstairs Main Stage) 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
ends on June 10, 2018
for tickets, call 773.404.7336 or visit Greenhouse

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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