What do a couple of gay male penguins immortalized in a controversial children’s book, an opposite-gender pair of red-tailed hawks nesting on a top-story ledge of a pricey Upper Manhattan co-op, and the marital woes of a former ABC/CBS/Fox/CNN news anchor have in common?

The answer is that all of the above take center stage in Birds Of A Feather, Marc Acito’s sweet, funny, topical, and ultimately quite moving one-act comedy now making its West Coast debut in a something-to-squawk-about production at San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre.

SiloRoy_meeting_hires Steve Gunderson and Mike Sears star as both avian couples, with Kevin Koppman-Gue and Rachael VanWormer appearing as Paula Zahn, ex-hubby Richard Cohen, and assorted others under James Vasquez’s inspired direction.

Silo (Sears) and Roy (Gunderson) are the real-life chinstrap penguins whose friendship turned to love as they built a nest, incubated an egg, and brought to life a penguin chick at New York’s Central Park Zoo, and later found themselves immortalized in Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson’s And Tango Makes Three, the “most challenged” book of the 2000s. (Oh but those right-wing fanatics do get their feathers ruffled when our schools and libraries expose them to same-sex love.)

Zookeeper_Birder_hires Gunderson and Sears double as Pale Male and Lola, the red-tailed hawks whose enormous nest built high up a swanky Manhattan co-op not only got apartment owners Zahn and Cohen’s knickers in a twist, their fellow residents Mary Tyler Moore and husband Dr. Richard Levine were none too happy either about the hawks’ habit of feeding on rats and pigeons, and then leaving their bird poop as a reminder. (It didn’t help Zahn and Cohen that their marital woes also were also becoming fodder for the tabloid press at the time.)

Adding a delightful fictional touch to the fact-based narrative are VanWormer’s sweet, quirky zookeeper harboring a deep, abiding love for the birds in her care, and Koppman-Gue’s nerdishly handsome birdwatcher, lovestruck by both zookeeper and those nesting hawks.

Playwright Acito weaves penguins, hawks, and humans together as seamlessly as the Diversionary cast switch from character to character, which is to say quite seamlessly indeed, aided by costume designer Jeannie Galioto’s remarkable now-they’re-penguins, now-they’re-hawks costumes and assorted wigs.

SiloRoywithegg_hires Birds Of A Feather manages to pack in an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink array of LGBT issues into its ninety minutes, including gay marriage, same-sex parenting, bisexuality (or gay denial?), and gender roles, though perhaps Acito takes it a tad too far when even 9/11 and conjured-up images of victims choosing to jump to their deaths hand in hand enter the picture.

Acito (whose work also includes two terrific gay-themed young adult novels and the books for two recent Old Globe musical hits, A Room With A View and Allegiance) has created a clever new lexicon for Birds Of A Feather. Humans are “featherless birds,” high-rises are “people mountains,” and many a play-on-words comes from the substitution of “squawk” for “talk.” And though Acito’s turns of phrases can at times come dangerously close to pretentious rather than poetic, as when Pale Male’s red tail is described as “soaring like a trail of blood against the everywhere of blue,” or when one of the penguins declares, “I’ve often thought that our black and white coats were a symbolic representation of a bifurcated nature,” you have to love a playwright who can surprise you with a deadpan “All of the facts are completely true except birds can’t talk.”

Superlatives are in order for Diversionary’s cast of four, each of them one of San Diego’s busiest and most accomplished performers.

Silo_PaleMale_hires Acito’s script allows each “avian actor” to play a pair of mirror-opposite roles. Thus, Gunderson’s finicky, show-tune loving Roy has more than a bit of Paul Lynde in him, while his macho Pale Male is Clint Eastwood in feathers—and both penguin and hawk have ocean-deep hearts. Sears’s Silo may appear tough and even hard-hearted on the surface, but still waters do indeed run deep, and as for his Lola, the delicate damsel could easily be a Tennessee Williams heroine, had Williams written about Southern birds rather than Southern belles.

Young San Diego treasures Koppman-Gue and VanWormer provide absolutely splendid backup to Birds Of A Feather’s feathered stars. Koppman-Gue’s lovestruck birdwatcher contrasts with his equally finely-drawn portrait of Zahn’s hard-as-nails businessman spouse. As for VanWormer, not only does the Best Lead Actress Scenie winner have great fun playing against type as surface-slick Zahn, when her zookeeper finds her love for her birds extending to another human being, there may not be a dry eye in the house.

paula_hires VanWormer and Gunderson shine too in a hilarious scene between Zahn and library volunteer Chastity in which the former explains why And Tango Makes Three is conspicuously missing from her library’s shelves: “It says the penguins ‘sleep together,’ ” she explains to the anchorwoman, to which Zahn zings back with, “So do Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat.”

In addition to Galioto’s ingenious costumes, Birds Of A Feather benefits from Diversionary Theatre’s topnotch team of San Diego designers, beginning with scenic designer Sean Fanning, whose marvelous multi-level, multi-locale set takes And Tango Makes Three’s watercolor book illustrations by Henry Cole as its inspiration. I particularly enjoyed the way the window of one of Fanning’s high-rise cutouts lights up whenever Zahn and Cohen start going at it inside, and also the hawks’ stick-on nest, which recalled the Colorforms I grew up playing with. Lighting designer Michelle Caron once again gets top marks as does sound designer Kevin Anthenill, and a round of applause goes to David J. Medina’s props, including rocks, penguin eggs, a Tango sock puppet, and a vermin or two.  Ryan Heath is stage manager.

Since first discovering America’s third-oldest continuously producing LGBT theater in the summer of 2008, I have become quite possibly Diversionary Theatre’s biggest L.A.-based fan. Under John Alexander’s visionary artistic direction since 2011, Diversionary just keeps getting better and better, and if the wonderful Birds Of A Feather is any indication, Diversionary’s 2013 season may well be its best ever.

Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
February 9, 2013
Photos: Ken Jacques

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