The Door, Birmingham Rep
December 11, 2019
Choreographer Carlos Pons Guerra is best known for his provocative works for De Nada Dance Theatre, and particularly his Ham and Passion triple-bill, an exploration of sexuality, gender and Spanish identity. With its references to Catholic iconography, drag queens and sado-masochism, it has proved controversial to say the least. But that’s probably the last adjective you would use to describe Penguins. Directed by Paul Bosco McEneaney and a co-production between the Birmingham Rep, Cahoots NI and Prime Theatre, it’s a heart-warming 45 minutes based on the true story of Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins at New York’s Central Zoo, who together hatched an abandoned egg and raised a chick.
The story is told entirely through dance, physical action and, very importantly, facial expression. Dom Coffey and Osian Meillir as the two penguins and Olivia Van Niekerk as Zoo Keeper and then hatched chick excel.
After an amusing take on the usual pre-show announcements (“Whatever you do, don’t feed the penguins”), the opening scene has Van Niekerk revealing animal delights via a magical chest of drawers. When attention turns to Roy and Silo, left without mates after all the other penguins have coupled up, we see them enjoying each other’s company. In Sabine Dargent’s sharp and stylish black and white suits, and kipper ties, they are delightfully endearing as they feed, play, swim, and generally hang out together. When they nuzzle each other or rub heads, the affection is there for all to see.
There’s plenty of sharp interplay too as the pair climb and leap around Dargent’s set. It’s a penguin take on a Le Corbusier house or pavilion. Made from various shaped cubes and subtly lit with hints of aqua-marine, it has the rather appropriate appearance of blocks of ice.
Pons Guerra achieves a super balance between human and penguin. There’s no attempt to hide the human form but he captures well all the slightly comic penguin eccentricities. Even so, while the on-land movement may be quirky, there’s no flat-footed, turned-out waddling, and no flapping around. In the water (created with lighting), the dance flows much more. One balletic shoulder-lift stands out in particular.
Having seen the eggs of all the other (unseen) penguin couples, Roy and Stilo muse over a rock, soon replaced with a discarded egg by the Zoo Keeper. Fast forward, and soon they hatch their own chick, creating their unique penguin family. It’s now that Van Niekirk really shines, beautifully wide-eyed and playful as the new-born. Her dance in the water is quite balletic.
Not once do you feel you are being lectured to but as Penguins closes with the threesome enjoying life together, the underlying message is clear: not everyone and not all families are the same. It is OK to be gay. Just as important are the notions of friendship, getting along and that dreams can come true, however.
Children’s theatre may not be a place one expects to find Pons Guerra but it’s impossible to argue with his belief that youngsters should be told stories with elements like this. “I think we have this prejudice that if you talk to children about homosexuality it’s inappropriate, but it isn’t because it is so important,” he once said. Equally important is how do you do it. Acutely observed, stylish, never overbearing, Penguins is a beautiful little show that I guarantee will send you away smiling; a little gem that the whole family will enjoy.
Penguins is at the Birmingham Rep to December 14. Visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk for details and tickets.
It then transfers to the Lyric Theatre, Belfast from December 18-22 (lyrictheatre.co.uk), before heading off on a US tour that opens in West Palm beach in February 2020.