Abraham Lincoln's Big, Gay Dance Party
nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
August 18, 2009
Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party. With that title, it's hard to know what to expect and difficult not to develop a thousand preconceptions about what you may see. In a way, it almost feels a bit blasphemous to picture such a "hallowed historical figure" surrounded by a crazy big gay dance party. However, that is exactly the point BlueRare Productions' show is trying to make and, thanks to the hilariously witty and remarkably poignant mix of words Aaron Loeb has written and superb performances across the board by the cast, Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party knocks it out of the park.
Loeb's script is a play in three acts. At the center, an elementary school in Menard County, Illinois—Lincoln's hometown—presents a Christmas pageant that seems to have a bit more socio-political commentary than it should, ending by questioning if Lincoln may have had a relationship with Joshua Speed, a close friend. Harmony, the teacher who staged the pageant, is immediately fired and put on trial in the small town for exposing the children to the subject of sex; though it is obvious that posing the question of Lincoln's possible homosexuality is the true issue in the town. The trial's publicity skyrockets when former congressman and hopeful candidate for governor Tom Hauser, notoriously anti-gay, takes up the prosecution, and his former apprentice Regina Lincoln, a hot-shot state senator, gunning to become the first black female governor, takes the defense—making it the "trial of the century."
The audience sees the story of the trial from three angles: Tom, the prosecutor; Regina, the defense; and Anton, a New York-based Pulitzer Prize- winning gay journalist, here to cover the story. The twist: in the spirit of democracy, a random audience member chooses the order in which we witness the story. Each piece is an in-depth character study that fully gives the audience the point of view and varying mindsets of the characters, revealing a labyrinth of crippling secrets and political back-dealing. And I would still classify this as a comedy.
Loeb does a tremendous job tying these three viewpoints together. Each act is written in a slightly varied style that signifies with brilliant subtlety the makeup of its central character. They are so well interconnected, each referencing and connecting to the other acts in such a way, that his device of "audience chooses story order" almost makes you want to go again to see how it would fit in a different sequence—and what new ideas and feelings it would reveal.
Each piece is infused with the same style of witty dialogue mixed with over-the-top humor that always comes at a time where it doesn't seem out of place, while delving into a real issue: is homosexuality an issue that we as a country can put on trial? Is it an issue that is sometimes exploited in a political arena? Most impressively, he never falls into the trap of demonizing his characters; there is no bad guy—everyone is sympathetic.
Each actor gives a colorful and complex performance in a multitude of roles. Mark Anderson Phillips stands out as Anton, the journalist, effortlessly moving between his veil of wit, covering his feelings, and allowing his passion to show. Joe Kady manages to walk a tightrope as Tom, pulling as much sympathy as possible out of a challenging role—it would be easy to hate him, but he makes sure we don't.
Chris Smith's direction is taut and wonderfully paced. The 2 hour, 15 minute running time flies by and he doesn't seem to miss a beat weaving between humor and gravity. Bill English's set, three movable panels with Lincoln's face painted on them that morph into tables, judge's benches, and even a diner display counter, is ingenious.
BlueRare's production pulls off an amazing feat: each aspect presents a night of theatre that screams deliciously hilarious fluff but really ends being everything but. The title, Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party, gives you a mental picture of ridiculous debauchery, and that veneer allows Loeb and company to attack more serious issues, and the point the show so skillfully makes will stay with you after. When the dust settles, it's not a show about a big gay dance party and Lincoln isn't really that important, because it's really a story about us. And there aren't enough words in this review to describe how much I recommend it.