The idea for AJ Clauss’ play Salty came from a story they heard about two male penguins falling in love at a zoo. For the play, Clauss said they wanted to remove a gendered lens from the tale—and include humans as well.
Before we get to Desert Ensemble Theatre’s fantastic production of the show, a brief biology lesson: Penguins mate for life, but they don’t reproduce in the traditional way. Both sexes have orifices called cloacas, which are used to transfer sperm from the male to the female; this process takes about 10 seconds. The male incubates the egg while the female goes to sea to feed, returning weeks later when the egg is about to hatch. Got it? Good.
Salty is set in the future, at one of the last conservation zoos on the planet. Most of the actors play both a zoo employee and a penguin—with great aplomb across the board.
The main zookeepers are lovers Winnie (Tessa Gregory-Walker) and Desiree (Heather Bates); they are having serious relationship problems. Working alongside them are Steph (Phylicia Mason) and Mason (Miguel Arballo), whose work friendship is blossoming into romance. The zoo staff is rounded out by new father Zach (John Corr), whose wife has abandoned him, and the tour guide (Anthony Nannini).
Over on the penguin side, the plot revolves around Bowie (Corr) and new arrival Silver (Nannini), who are immediately drawn to each other. They confess they both want to be fathers—and plan to find an egg to incubate. Partners Edward (Arballo) and Snickers (Mason) are mourning the child they lost, while Flora (Bates) and Fauna (Gregory-Walker) are dealing with the trauma of seasonal molting. The only actor who does not juggle dual roles is the fabulous Melanie Blue, who plays the fox.
To give away much more of the parallel storylines would diminish the theater-goer’s experience; I’ll simply say there is plenty of drama, including a death, a birth and some bloodshed.
The acting is excellent across the board. It’s not easy to morph realistically from a human to a penguin in a few short minutes, but this cast succeeds—beautifully. Director Jerome Elliott deserves much of the credit, wisely opting for just a hint of typical penguin physicality.
As the same-sex penguins yearning for fatherhood, Corr and Nannini are superb. Both are consummate actors who make their penguin love story touching and believable. They’re equally effective in their human roles, as Bowie and the tour guide.
The always-fun-to-watch Mason and Arballo, a real-life husband-and-wife team, are excellent as Snickers/Steph and Edward/Mason. They ably bring to life both the budding human romance and the bond of grief-stricken penguin parents.
Gregory-Walker is terrific as the sardonic penguin Fauna, who welcomes Silver to the zoo with a cheery, “It’s the end of days, kid!” She also makes us feel human Winnie’s pain as her bond with Desiree starts slipping away. Bates shines as the conflicted Desiree, and is a hoot as the feather-shedding Flora.
Blue is perfectly cast as the fox. Appropriately vulpine, Blue struts and slinks around the stage, drawing us in with her often humorous—and sometimes tragic—commentary.
Desert Ensemble Theatre recently received a $25,000 Spotlight Grant from the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation, and the amount of work and resources the company is putting into its productions shows, with improved lighting (Jason Smith) at the company’s new Palm Springs Cultural Center home, as well as a fabulous set (by Thomas L. Valach). (Full disclosure: I was part of the DET production Artificial Morality last month.) Kudos to Gus Sanchez (a graduate of the company’s theater internship program) for the sound effects and music choices, which set just the right mood.
Salty is a hard play to describe. Some might call it experimental theater; it’s a somewhat dark, yet offers a hopeful look at the future. It does deal with some tough issues, including same-sex relationships, the loss of a child, animal abuse and climate change. Questions about what it really means to be a parent and whether humans are truly the superior species will linger long after you leave the theater. However, there are plenty of laughs as well.
Congratulations to executive director Shawn Abramowitz and artistic director Jerome Elliott for making a bold choice like Salty, and for executing it so well.
Desert Ensemble Theatre’s production of Salty will be performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 27, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $35. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination is required for entry. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.desertensembletheatre.org.