Marc Acito and James Vásquez return for Diversionary Theatre’s latest
By Charlene Baldridge | SDUN Reporter
During the early part of 21st century, citizens of New York City as well as avid avian admirers nationwide were thoroughly captivated by two nesting couples. One pair, red-tailed hawks named Pale Male and Lola incubated, hatched and fed chicks in a nest precariously perched on a window ledge near the top of a posh Fifth Avenue co-op.
Residents of the building were not amused, and Pale Male and Lola were evicted.
The other pair, Chinstrap male penguins named Roy and Silo, lived in Central Park Zoo, where they incubated a fertile egg slipped to them by the zookeeper, who took pity on them when they tried to hatch a rock. The same-sex pair successfully hatched and raised a daughter named Tango. The resulting book, Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson’s “And Tango Makes Three,” has been on the banned-book list ever since it was published in 2005.
Enter novelist Marc Acito, who has had a lot of San Diego exposure on a grand scale. He recently wrote the book and additional lyrics for the musicals “Allegiance” and “Room With a View” at the Old Globe. Acito now makes further inroads, this time at Diversionary Theatre with his 2012 Helen Hayes Award-winning play, “Birds of a Feather,” which intertwines the stories of the two bird pairs: Lola and Pale Male and Roy and Silo.
“The play came to me literally in a dream,” Acito said, who was walking his dog in Central Park when reached by phone. “I’d read about both situations when I came down with a really bad flu, the kind where you can’t get your head off the pillow; the kind where you say, ‘Oh, I’m sure I can get up now,’ and when you sit up you lie right back down again.”
The two stories began orbiting around one another in what Acito said was a fever dream. “As soon as I could sit up, I grabbed my computer and started writing. Because I’d thought about it so long, I wrote the first draft in 11 days. I’ve never written anything so fast.” Of course there were rewrites before the piece premiered at The Hub Theatre in Fairfax, Va. in 2011.
Director James Vásquez will mount the second production and West Coast premiere of “Birds of a Feather” at Diversionary Theatre. At the time of this interview, Vásquez was recovering from his own flu. His particular fever dream involved Acito’s play, its two mating pairs, and four actors – Mike Sears, Steve Gunderson, Kevin Koppman-Gue and Rachael VanWormer – who play 27 characters in scenes set in six locations, including a zoo and a window ledge, of course.
“I’m spoiled rotten with this cast,” Vásquez said. “The show sounds so simple at the heart of it, and it is, really. It’s about love and it’s about family and what defines a family. It’s about self worth and the struggles we have to accept who we are. It’s fascinating to watch these characters living these human emotions.”
Gunderson plays the more flamboyant penguin; in Vásquez’s words: “out loud and proud and comfortable with himself.” Sears plays his same-sex partner, who struggles a bit with his sexuality.
“Then, before our eyes in the middle of a scene, they become the hawks. Steve plays Pale Male, and Mike [plays] Pale Male’s girlfriend, Lola. We get to see each actor take on a really masculine role and then an equally strong, yet feminine character,” Vásquez said.
When “Room With a View” played at the Old Globe, Acito met with Vásquez, who had been recommended as a potential director for “Birds of a Feather.” Vásquez said he had read and loved the play, as well as Acito’s writing, which he finds poetic and lyrical.
That is no surprise. Acito is a former opera singer.
“And not a very good one,” he said. “I came to opera from the theater and played character roles: the mad scientist, the hunchback, the dwarf and the drunk. Opera spans 400 years of Western culture, not to mention a real understanding of comedy and comedic roles, which I was playing. Ultimately, I became more interested in creating my own work than in interpreting someone else’s.”
In throes of what he describes as a midlife crisis, Acito moved to New York to become a playwright. “Allegiance” will move to Broadway sometime this season, and “Room With a View” is scheduled for another production, somewhere Acito said he cannot reveal. “And then we’ll see,” he said.
The openly gay Acito has been in a long-term relationship since he was 20, which heavily influenced “Birds of a Feather.”
“It’s now 26 years,” he said. “I don’t know a lot, but I know about marriage from first-hand experience. Our marriage is all over this play, kaleidoscopically. There are pieces of us in snippets of conversation throughout. Relationships require an immense amount of work [and] to find them and to sustain them is difficult. A line in the play sticks out to me: ‘Love is indeed a rare bird.’ It is, indeed, an illusive, delicate thing that has to be cared for.”
“Birds of a Feather” plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through March 3. The official opening night is Feb. 9. Diversionary Theatre is located at 4545 Park Blvd. in University Heights. Tickets range from $25 to $45, with discounts for groups, seniors and military. Student rush tickets are $12 and available one hour prior to curtain, with proper identification. For complete show times and tickets, visit diversionary.org or call 619-220-0097.