Who: Redhouse Arts Center
Where: 201 S. West St., Syracuse, NY 13202
When: Through Nov. 1
Preview by: Jake Cappuccino
Syracuse’s Redhouse Arts Center will perform “The Penguin Tango” on Oct. 23rd, the first performance of the play since its debut at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2006. Directed and written by the Redhouse’s executive director Stephen Svoboda, the play tells the stories of homosexual penguins, based on real penguins at the Brooklyn Zoo, Central Park Zoo and Germany’s Bremerhaven Zoo.
The story follows several penguins as they go about their lives in the Bremerhaven Zoo. While all of the penguins share the stage fairly equally, a lot of the story revolves around two penguins, Roy (Royale) and Silo, who are raising a rock as if it were an egg. But, Svoboda aspires to show more than just that story.
The penguins and their stories serve as an effective and teen-friendly framework to explore human themes such as gender, sexuality and politics while also questioning normal behaviors. The play smartly does not involve any humans, like the zookeepers, but the penguins constantly try to sort through the labels applied by the humans and themselves.
“It’s really about telling people to look at each other for how we behave and how we act and not what we say we are, what name we’re given,” Svoboda said.
The play has a so-called communist, a capitalist, a gay penguin, a metrosexual flamingo, a masculine penguin, and spectrum of grey in between. It also notably never refers to any character with gendered pronouns.
Both the comedy and drama of the show emerges from the conflict between who the penguins say they are, who they actually are, and what the off stage humans say they are. In working through these topics, the comedy is extremely ambitious. The script and The Redhouse cast will easily achieve some laughs and earn some heavy moments.
But, this play faces a two-fold challenge. The jokes in the dialogue work, but without the proper delivery, the punchlines will fall flat. Without the laugh out loud high points, the cast will not be able to create the empathy for the low points. Furthermore, this run of the show will debut an entirely rewritten second act, which features a new character and paints the other characters in deeper, more negative strokes.
The stakes for success are also even higher for “The Penguin Tango” since it is dealing with subjects that do not see a lot of exposure in the mainstream.
The cast features a mix of New York City actors as well as Syracuse natives. Steve Hayes, who plays the gay penguin Wendell, performed in the play’s 2006 debut.
John Bixler, who plays the sexually confused Roy, also rejoins the cast from the show’s original run; his experience with this character shows.
For Svoboda, the show is all about the audience’s learning and enjoyment.
“For me, for the audience, it’s about coming and having a great time and also learning the lesson the play has to teach you," Svoboda said. "And realizing why we as community feel such need to see differences and not see what we have in common. And that’s really what the penguins are about. They are taught what difference is and it divides their whole community.”