August 7, 2010

Abe's Dance Party

Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party won the 2009 Outstanding Play at the New York International Fringe Festival. It is currently playing at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row for a limited engagement until 05 September. Opening night is on 11 August.

The 3 act play is written by Aaron Loeb. The cast of seven---Arnie Burton (who I loved in The 39 Steps), Pippa Pearthree, Robert Hogan, Ben Roberts, Lisa Birnbaum, Ted Koch, and Stephanie Pope Caffey---play various roles in this story of political intrigue and satire.
Menard County Elementary School teacher Harmony Green gets into legal trouble after she presents a different take on this year's Christmas Pageant. Her script implies that our beloved 16th President had a homosexual relationship with his friend/former roommate Joshua Speed, setting off a firestorm of controversy.
In the spirit of democracy, the audience gets to pick a representative who will decide the sequence in which the acts are performed. The day I watched, we first saw the so-called "Trial of the Century" through the eyes of New York Times (and he likes to remind us, Pulitzer Prize-winning) reporter Anton Renaud (Burton) and his photographer-friend Esmeralda Diaz (Pope Caffey). They meet a local pie shop owner Jerry (Roberts) who they realize is gay but not out to his parents. With good reason. His father happens to be a conservative former congressman. The show, which had been happily zipping along with 7 dancing Abes, turns serious with a discussion about what it's like to be a closeted gay.
The second act dealt with Jerry's father, former Congressman Tom Hauser(Hogan) who is prosecuting Ms. Green (Pearthree). By his side is the villainous Lloyd (Koch), his campaign manager whose plotting and machinations fuel the ex-congressman's ambition and escalating homophobia. With terrible consequences. This was the most hilarious one, exaggerating the ridiculousness of the court room drama.
The last act showed the defense attorney's side, Senator Regina Lincoln (Pope Caffey). She is aided by her assistant Tina (Birnbaum) in her planned run for the governor's seat. The Senator gets to face off against her former mentor Hauser in the court room. This last act highlights the hypocrisy, the ugliness of politics.
The show isn't as serious as it sounds. It is actually laugh-out-loud funny despite its weighty themes. Nowhere else can you get dance numbers interspersed with visions of, and conversations with, a dead president; references to Avenue Q and Sweeney Todd, jokes about corrupt Illinois politicians, and biting social commentary.
I liked the order in which I saw the play last Sunday. I've thought about the different combinations, and how it would affect my perceptions of the characters' dilemmas. Like Kurosawa's Rashomon (and it's Off-Broadway incarnation, See What I Wanna See), we see different view points. The way we receive new information in each act would color our interpretations.
With a San Francisco federal judge overturning Prop 8 recently, the discussion on gay rights is bound to heat up. Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party comes at an opportune time, drawing attention to the divisions in our country. We have been a deeply polarized nation since Barack Obama's election to the highest office in the land. The talking heads on television can't stop arguing over Don't Ask, Don't Tell, health care, same sex marriage, too much or too little government/regulation, green energy, bipartisanship, whether the First Lady should be vacationing in Spain, ad nauseam.

I'm not sure what Pres. Lincoln would say or do about current events. I'm sure he'll be proud that the Union he saved is lively, noisy, raucous. What better way to exercise one's freedom than by creating a play about an iconic president and stirring up debate? Maybe he's discussing it with his BFF Joshua Fry Speed.

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