Liberation in the Land of Lincoln 

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Abraham Lincoln's Big, Gay Dance Party
Written by Aaron Loeb
Directed by Chris Smith

The truth of Honest Abe's sexual orientation barely comes up in Abraham Lincoln's Big, Gay Dance Party. In fact quite early on a member of the cast, all of whom don the dead president's distinctive suit, beard and top hat at various times, tells the audience coquettishly: "I was definitely gay!" This campy courtroom drama, such a hit at last year's Fringe that it earned an Off Broadway run (through September 5), concerns the implications of that assertion for residents of Menard County, Illinois, and visiting Chicagoans and New Yorkers hoping to benefit somehow from the scandal.

Besieged middle school teacher Harmony (Pippa Pearthree), whose opening Christmas pageant ends abruptly when a jittery Lincoln tells Washington and Jefferson about his relationship with Joshua Speed, ends up on trial being prosecuted and defended by Republican gubernatorial candidates (Stephanie Pope Caffey and Robert Hogan). Outside the courtroom, hotshot New York Times reporter Anton (Arnie Burton) plays the politicians' assistants (Lisa Birnbaum and Ted Koch) against each other while helping the district attorney's son Jerry (Ben Roberts) come out. These intertwined conflicts are separated out into three acts told from the perspectives of the political candidates and the star reporter, an expanded view that not only makes Abraham Lincoln much longer than it needs to be, but also extenuates immense imbalances between the engaging and inert acts. (The order in which they're performed, which is determined by a randomly chosen member of the audience, can further underline this disequilibrium.)

Dabbling in campy satire, melodrama and courtroom procedural, writer Aaron Loeb and director Chris Smith demand a lot of the ensemble, some of whom handle the athletic costume and set changes more adroitly. Burton, for instance, one of the original Broadway cast members of that epic hat-switching show The 39 Steps, fares exceptionally well, hamming it up as a slightly sadistic judge before stealing the show as the righteous journalist. The order of acts on the evening I attended, determined by the young woman in seat F18, may have bolstered Burton's affecting performance, which came last and was preceded by the so-so Hogan-centered middle act and inert Caffey-concerned opener. It's to Loeb's credit as a playwright comfortable with constraining concepts that the three modular sections can be rearranged so agilely—not unlike scenic designer Bill English's trio of multifunction Warholian Lincoln heads.

But the tension between black Republican Senator Regina (Caffey) and DA Tom (Hogan), former colleagues now jockeying for position in the Illinois primaries, is discussed at great lengths but never demonstrated during their interactions, or their assistants'. The supposed political intrigue works clumsily. Wondering how a child's coming out might affect a social conservative's candidacy seems like a Bush-era issue—the play is set in 2006. More compellingly contemporary is the question of government's place in people's classrooms and bedrooms. Loeb remains cautiously optimistic regarding Lincoln's liberating legacy. But outing Abe isn't the raucous, biting and emancipatory satire it should be, and only occasionally do its stylized interludes and dramatic scenes mesh successfully. Abraham Lincoln's Big, Gay Dance Party can't quite live up to its exceptional name.

(photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

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