As a bisexual woman working in the children’s department of a library, I make it my business to read as many LGBTQ-centric children’s books as possible, and the charming picture book And Tango Makes Three has long held special place in my heart. Based on the true story of two male pair-bonded penguins, Silo and Roy, who raise a chick together (the eponymous Tango), the sweet, heartwarming children’s book has been the source of a firestorm of controversy, as homophobes around the country demanded that the existence of same-sex parents (even penguins) was inappropriate knowledge for young children. And Tango Makes Three quickly became one of the most banned books in the country.
These days, you can find titles like Heather Has Two Mommies and Jacob’s New Dress in the picture book sections of many bookstores and libraries, but homophobia is far from over, and five of the top ten most challenged children’s books in 2017 were challenged for having LGBTQ content. Greenhouse Theater Center’s latest production, the Chicago premiere of Marc Acito’s comedy Birds of a Feather, directed by Jacob Harvey, brings And Tango Makes Three to life.
Of course, it also brings to life the story of Pale Male, a hawk who built a nest on the top of a swanky high rise in New York City and became an animal celebrity in the style of the more-recent Pizza Rat. I had never heard of Pale Male before this production, and I was particularly surprised by his presence since none of the material advertising the show mentions him, only Roy and Silo. Even more confusing is the fact that five bird characters—Roy, Silo, Tango, Pale Male, and Pale Male’s mate Lola—are all played by two actors. Don’t get me wrong; Paul Michael Thomson and Aaron Kirby do a fantastic job slipping into and out of their various oversized avian personas, but it’s unclear why such doubling is necessary and having, for example, Tango and Roy played by the same person is distracting. This show would certainly benefit from a few more actors.
The play has plenty of funny moments, from an array of musical theatre references to an endless parade of bird puns: talking becomes “squawking,” a situation gets “out of claw” rather than hand. There’s a certain charm, too, in the conceit of the animals’ conception of the world; skyscrapers are “mountains” and people “featherless birds,” but Silo also rails against heteronormativity, conformity, and other lofty concepts. Of course, he then abandons all those principles in a bizarre plotline in which he continually insists he isn’t gay, just in a gay relationship (bisexuality is an option, dude). Pale Male and Lola struggle with typical relationship issues like jealousy, and at one point Pale Male tries to inspire Silo to seek fame, a storyline that’s dropped after intermission.
Birds of a Feather has lots of humor and endearing characters, but it doesn’t seem sure of what exactly it’s about. Ideas, themes, and storylines flit in and out like the birds themselves. The closest thing the show has to a heart is in the human characters, a zookeeper and a birdwatcher who find human connection through their love of animals. If the story of baby Tango teaches us anything in this context, it’s that what we think and feel about animals says more about us than it says about them. In the end, I have to say I recommend the source material, And Tango Makes Three, a bit more highly than the stage play.
Location: Greenhouse Theater Center (Upstairs Main Stage), 2257 N. Lincoln Ave, Chicago
Dates: Wednesday, May 2 – Sunday, June 17, 2018
Curtain times: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm; Sundays at 2:30 pm.
Please note: there will be an added performance on Wednesday, May 2 at 7:30 pm; there will not be performances on Saturday, May 5 at 7:30 pm or Sunday, May 6 at 7:30 pm.
Tickets: $35 – $45. Students and industry: $15. Tickets are currently available at at the Greenhouse Theater Center website, in person at the box office, or by calling (773) 404-7336. Season Flex Passes are also available.
All photos by Liz Lauren.