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Penguin Tango’s Alternative Zoo Story

The Penguin Tango at the Redhouse Arts Center

In his curtain speech, playwright-director Stephen Svoboda acknowledges that the impulse for the Redhouse Arts Center’s production of The Penguin Tango comes from one of America’s most frequently banned books. Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson’s 2005 children’s book And Tango Makes Three won praise from the likes of Maurice Sendak but brought down the wrath of censors. Reportedly based on an episode observed in life, two male penguins, Roy and Silo, were sitting on a small rock apparently trying to hatch it like an egg. Seeing this, a zookeeper gave the males an egg produced elsewhere, and they hatched it, producing a chick named Tango, whom they raised. Whoa! Call out the moral militia!

Svoboda takes this lean narrative, told in 32 profusely illustrated pages, and spins it into an epic dance-musical, satirical allegory running two hours and 45 minutes. Nikki Dehomme’s witty Magritte-esque costumes for all 10 zoo characters announce a lightly absurdist tone, even when characters alter genders; Roy is originally known as Royale. The tone sometimes veers toward farce, with three doors upstage always getting slammed. And characters usually make entrances with voluble panache. Svodoba nonetheless drives Tango’s counter-homophobia thesis trenchantly. Reduced to one line it concurs with Albin’s anthem in La Cage aux Folles: “I am what I am.”

Svoboda originated the script at the University of Miami and opened it at the New York Fringe Festival in August 2006. John Bixler, now a Redhouse regular, repeats the role of Roy he took then, and Steve Hayes is back as Wendell, the cheerful communist Penguin. Wendell tangles with hyper-capitalist Cass (Jason Timothy) in a script with more on its mind than gender roles. Other roles are filled with local faces, including Laura Austin as the coquettish Dia, assigned the unrewarding task of introducing Roy to the thrills of heterosexual encounters.

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