The Penguin Tango
Aristophanes probably wasn't the first writer to use animals to mock human behavior (The Wasps and The Frogs), but he certainly set the trend. George Orwell took on his mantle with Animal Farm, and today we have Stephen Svoboda stepping into those worthy shoes with the sweet and endearing The Penguin Tango, a lovingly satirical comedy now making its New York debut at the Fringe Festival.
The play, based largely on true events from various zoos around the world, follows the romantic adventures of eight penguins in Germany's Bremerhaven Zoo. Wendell and Cass (based on two real penguins in the Central Park Zoo) have been partners for years, despite Cass' merciless capitalism and Wendell's cheerful communism. Silo and Royale (later called Roy, also based on two Central Park Zoo penguins) have been trying to have a chick, but for some reason can't get their rock to hatch. When the owners of the zoo realize that they have gay (and, by proxy, chickless) penguins in their exhibit, they introduce all sorts of measures to separate the couples and ensure another generation of chicks, regardless of the feelings of the penguins, who mate for life.
Wisely, Svoboda takes the quirkiest of all possible approaches and does not focus his story on the zoo managers and their decisions, or indeed on any human. Instead, we see the penguins themselves struggling with the bizarre behaviors of their owners and trying to follow their hearts against increasing odds. Microchips are implanted in brains, sexy Swedish homewreckers are introduced, love letters are read by the wrong penguins, and it's all delightfully silly and funny. At times, the play becomes a bit heavy-handed, preaching to the choir about accepting each other and live-and-let-live and other Very Important Themes. At the Fringe Festival, such morals seem almost quaint, and the loving barbs in the script are moral enough.
The winsome cast contributes greatly to the fun, keeping the script afloat when it threatens to become too heavy. Brendan Maroney and John Bixler have delightful chemistry and comic timing as Silo and Roy(ale), as do Lowell Williams and Steve Hayes as Cass and Wendell. Andrea Pettigrove is appropriately vampy and campy as Dia, Sweden's answer to Damn Yankees' Lola. Chris Teustch plays a conceited lothario with appropriate smarminess, and Eli Sands is tragically (often painfully) funny as the resident geek Curly. Anna Becker delivers her lines with a scene-stealing dry wit, and Christian Mansfield is adorably fey as a neighboring flamingo who learns about love.
It's sweet, charming, winsome, and utterly enjoyable but for the few moments when it becomes preachy. It doesn't need to be preachy; it's funny. People are much more willing to listen when you make them laugh than when you hit them over the head with philosophy, and there are plenty of laughs in The Penguin Tango.