My high school biology teacher used to tell us we could ask him any questions at all. Sure enough, one kid eventually inquired, “Is it true there are homosexuals among animals?”
Mr. Lord thought a moment and said, “Well...nature is very adaptable.”
Nature may be, but people often aren’t. That’s why, when two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo teamed up to raise a chick, they inspired a book – “And Tango Makes Three” – which inspired a small furor.
“Tango” made local news in 2006, when it briefly became the first book in a decade removed from libraries in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. It went back on the shelves after then-superintendent Peter Gorman admitted he’d acted hastily.
Book banning becomes one theme in Marc Acito’s “Birds of a Feather,” a play with much on its mind. It follows Silo (Stephen Seay) and Roy (Kristian Wedolowski) as they guard an egg taken away from less responsible penguins and raise the female baby who emerges.
It spends time with Pale Male (Wedolowski) and Lola (Seay), red-tailed hawks who charmed New Yorkers by nesting atop a co-op at 927 Fifth Ave., until some residents grew irate. And it eventually brings together a birdwatcher (Robbie Jaeger) and a zookeeper (Karen Christensen) who relate more easily to avian species than human beings.
Naturally, Acito anthropomorphizes the birds. He invents a clever vocabulary for them – a window is a “wall of hard sky” – as they contemplate infidelity, gender preference, relationships that change one partner but not the other, the price of welcome or unwelcome fame. (Both bird couples get national media attention.)
Acito becomes diffuse and preachy when he wastes time with subsidiary human characters. We listen to bickering between Richard Cohen, the hawks’ main opponent, and his wife, CNN anchor Paula Zahn; she conducts an on-air interview with a boob offended by the “Tango” book, and both she and the boob get humiliated.
The author remains subtlest and more interesting among the four birds, whom he takes more seriously than the people praising, feeding or pestering them. There we see deeper emotions at play, as Roy and Silo grow apart (this really happened) and Pale Male and Lola face eviction (ditto).
Though the play was originally written to be presented with no intermission, Queen City Theatre Company takes a break; that works, as it emphasizes the tender parts of the second “act.”
Actors step in and out of costumes and personalities adeptly, and director Glenn Griffin balances weaker farcical elements with stronger serious ones. The set by Tim Baxter-Ferguson and Wedolowski uses two tiers to distinguish hawks from penguins; famous New York landmarks tilt in the background, as if the news of gay penguins is enough to topple them.
By the way, the real Tango matured and decided to nest with Tazumi, another female. What can one say? Penguins are...adaptable. We could learn something – if only tolerance – from their example.
‘Birds of a Feather’
When: Through Nov. 14 at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
Where: Duke Energy Theatre, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.
Running time: 120 minutes.