Think back to the last time you saw a play where the main characters were talking birds. Were you there as a result of familial obligations? Was it at an elementary school? Did it involve someone’s mom hot-gluing a bag of feathers to an old Hanes T-shirt? Regardless of your feelings on theatre by and/or for children, take note: Gulfport Community Players’ “Birds of a Feather” is no kids show. There are life lessons aplenty for humans big and small, but if you bring the wee ones be prepared for a lively discussion on the ride home.
The script by Marc Acito is inspired by the same real-life events featured in the 2005 children’s book “And Tango Makes Three” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson. Roy and Silo, two chinstrap penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo, bonded, hatched a spare egg from another penguin, and raised the chick as their own. While the play similarly centers on a pair of penguins embarking on parenthood together, it ventures much further into grownup talk as it ruminates not only on the definition of family, but also on the themes of nature vs. nurture, physical and emotional intimacy, and, ultimately, love itself.
That’s a lot of ground to cover, and the playwright sometimes struggles to avoid heavy-handed monologuing. But Director Patrick Brafford, who also designed the smartly efficient set, coaxes genuinely engaging, funny, and oftentimes touching performances from his cast to balance out the weight of the show’s messaging.
As the two penguins at the center of the story, Daniel Harris and Nic Roland strike up compelling chemistry, no small feat considering unexpected co-parenting isn’t the only complication in their relationship: Roland’s Silo is reluctant to fully own his identity as one half of a sincerely loving pair, in contrast with Harris’ exuberantly all-in Roy. “Birds” is a comedy about gay penguins, and the yuks are solid and flow steadily: Roland and Harris could probably sit back and coast on a clever premise, fanciful costumes and a lot of well-crafted jokes. But the production is elevated by their willingness to dig into the, well, humanity of these penguins.
And while Harris and Roland anchor the show as the penguins everyone was talking about, they aren’t the only notable birds in the ensemble. High above Silo and Roy in Central Park, perched on the ledge of a swank New York apartment building, red-tailed hawks Pale Male and Lola have built a nest and a life together and they’re generating Kardahsian-like buzz on the streets below. Taylor X. Taylor brings convincing swagger and killer instinct to Pale Male, while Jennifer Casler’s Lola charms as his mate, at first skeptical and slightly naive, but she’s a quick study and the two make a pretty epic New York power couple.
If there is some sort of community theater MVP award to be given, let it be shared by the rest of GCP’s “Birds” ensemble: Donna DeLonay, Sam DePriest and Velda Gauthier. The three actors round out the cast by portraying another 10 characters (11 if you count the fact that Gauthier portrays Tango as a teen and a young woman), and the trio of actors bring fantastic bursts of levity and balance to the show. Most of the characters are humans who end up in the birds’ orbit: some are broadly funny and played for laughs, while others – DeLonay’s zookeeper, for one – weave poignant arcs through the show.
“Birds of a Feather” runs for five more performances, June 17 to June 20, at the Catherine Hickman Theater. Get tickets at gulfportcommunityplayers.org.