'Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party'

Aaron Loeb made a local splash with last year's "First Person Shooter," a complex, clever drama examining the moral gray zones between violent videogames and real-world mayhem a la Columbine. His "Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party" (again premiering at SF Playhouse) is an even more ambitious mashup of burlesque anarchy, elaborate narrative intrigue, serious sociopolitical themes and campy dance interludes.

Aaron Loeb made a local splash with last year’s “First Person Shooter,” a complex, clever drama examining the moral gray zones between violent videogames and real-world mayhem a la Columbine. His “Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party” (again premiering at SF Playhouse) is an even more ambitious mashup of burlesque anarchy, elaborate narrative intrigue, serious sociopolitical themes and campy dance interludes. Plus sheer gamesmanship — the audience votes each night to determine the three-part show’s performance order. It shouldn’t all hold together. Yet somehow this frequently ingenious, hilarious contraption does.

Curtain-raising bit has small-town Illinois teacher Harmony Green (Lorraine Olsen) introducing this year’s Menard County Elementary School Christmas Pageant — a drastically revised affair that includes George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (played by fourth graders) telling Santa they’ve been more “naughty” than “nice” because they own slaves. They beg for pardon from area native Abe Lincoln, who amplifies the topic of oppression by alluding to his own historically debated relationship with BFF Joshua Fry Speed as a Love That Dared Not Speak Its Name.

Parents expecting “Frosty the Snowman” are duly outraged. The hapless teacher finds herself on trial, accused by the state of “distributing harmful materials to children.”

After this setup — and a dance number with the entire cast in Honest Abe beards, topcoats and stovepipe hats — the audience is asked via raised hands to choose from three teased takes on subsequent events in the Menard brouhaha.

Picked first on opening night was “Power,” focusing on the political wrangling between African-American Republican state senator Regina Lincoln (Velina Brown) and her former mentor Tom Hauser, a D.A., ex-Congressman and extreme conservative with rabid anti-gay views.

When the latter decides to run for governor — breaking a vow to support Regina’s own bid — the two colleagues assume spitefully opposed prosecution/defense sides of the court case. Adding more intrigue are Regina’s crafty assistant Tina (Sarah Mitchell) and Tom’s venomous campaign adviser Lloyd (Brian Degan Scott).

“A House Divided” shifts the spotlight to New York Times reporter Anton Renaud (Mark Anderson Phillips) and famed photographer Esmeralda Diaz (hilarious Brown), ultra-jaded urbanites in these hinterlands to cover “the trial of the century.” Mutually lusting after Tom’s apple-pie son Jerry (Michael Phillis), both realize he’s a closet case trapped by loyalty to his homophobic dad.

Esmeralda winds up posing as the Canadian girlfriend he’s made up as a cover story. These very funny scenes turn somber with two powerful monologues from Jerry and Anton.

“Liberty” portrays the trial itself, an oft-hysterical parody of justice hijinked by hyperbole. When a boozed-up, belligerent Tom experiences meltdown — imagining gay conspiracy everywhere — there are serious, even mortal consequences.

This sequencing seemed ideal, but doubtless repeat viewers will discover the charms of differently ordered evenings. Throughout, “Dance Party” improbably juggles a tonal mix from caricature to poignancy, threatening to go over the top at times but reined in by former Magic Theater a.d. Chris Smith’s precise control of an excellent cast, all playing multiple parts beyond their principal roles.

Loeb’s narrative invention and gift for the drop-dead comic line ensure there’s never a dull moment despite the lengthy runtime.

One might wish, as with “Shooter,” that the playwright’s expansive imagination had a larger stage and slicker production values to play with — not that Bill English’s set and other design contribs (notably the bursts of cheerfully incongruous pop dance from choreographers Kimberly Richards and Tom Segal) lack for bright ideas.

Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party

SF Playhouse, San Francisco; 91 seats; $40 top

Production

An SF Playhouse, Mason Cartmell, Lowell Kimble, Jill Matichak and Steven Von Rump presentation of a play in three acts by Aaron Loeb. Directed by Chris Smith.

Creative

Set, Bill English; costumes, Victoria Livingston Hall; lighting, Kate Boyd; original music and sound, Chris Houston; choreography, Kimberly Richards, Tom Segal; production stage manager, Tatjana Genser. Opened, reviewed Dec. 13, 2008. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

With: Velina Brown, Lorraine Olsen, Sarah Mitchell, Joe Kady, Mark Anderson Phillips, Michael Phillis, Brian Degan Scott.
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