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August 25, 2010

Review: Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party

by Jesse North

Surprisingly, Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party is a drama. Some might be compelled to call it a dramedy, but works that fall under that category display an equal balance in light and heavy tone. Dance Party is anything but balanced.

During a school Christmas pageant in Menard County, Illinois (a former residence of President Lincoln), the children, playing former presidents, shock the audience with lines that insinuate Honest Abe was homosexual. The teacher responsible for the controversy, Harmony Green, is swiftly fired and brought up on criminal charges for distributing harmful materials to minors. When two Illinois republicans competing for gubernatorial status fill the roles of defense and prosecution, the case becomes “the trial of the century.”

After these events unfold, the cast breaks the fourth wall and informs the audience that we are in control of the evening’s proceedings. We are to witness the story three times from the perspectives of the prosecutor, the defense attorney, and the New York Times reporter who comes to town. However, the audience gets to choose in which order we see them. The gimmick is interesting in the sense that when certain events happen in one act, the causes are further explained in other acts due to a difference in perspective and the play becomes a bit of an entertaining puzzle. Overall, it feels like a tool to complicate an uncomplicated story.

Further convoluting Dance Party is that it’s a bipolar play, much of which stems from its title. Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party infers a flashy, flamboyant, comical romp through the designated narrative. Yes, there are definitely moments like that in Dance Party. But instead of holding steady to that tone, there are also scenes where characters throw themselves at each other, screaming and gritting their teeth in vengeful agony about lost friends during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. These two tones do not match up and make for a confusing theater experience.

That said, the two personalities of Dance Party are individually great. The comedy induced huge grins from myself and hearty guffaws from the audience. Playwright Aaron Loeb’s “trial of the century” is like a modern-day Scopes Monkey Trial—an integration of present-day issues in the familiar shadow of history. Loeb constructs individual scenes of great drama and scathing truth, as characters spar with their views on African American and homosexual strife in the United States. When viewing this play through a pinhole, the scenes are solidly written. Yet looking at the big picture, it’s all a jumble.

For all that Dance Party gets wrong, it is blessed with a superb seven-person cast. Arnie Burton, from the original cast of The 39 Steps, brings his phenomenally animated face to the role of Anton Renault, the puffed-up journalist. Burton doesn’t know the meaning of a missed moment. Stephanie Pope Caffey is on fire in a dual role as Anton’s saucy Cuban photographer Esmerelda and the hard-nosed defense attorney Regina Lincoln. Robert Hogan, as the prosecutor and homophobe Tom Hauser, was born to play a politician. Ted Koch (a grown man) nails the 9-year-old Timmy so well that he is unrecognizable when he appears as Hauser’s commanding campaigner manager. And Pippa Pearthree is the ultimate teddy-bear-embroidered-cardigan-wearing fourth grade teacher.

Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party has a lot in common with its characters. The people of Menard County are having an identity crisis, trying to figure out where they stand amidst the controversy. Aaron Loeb’s play can’t decide what notes it wants to hit. Genre jumping is not easily achieved, and Dance Party hasn’t learned all the steps. I’m still convinced I walked into the wrong theater.

Play: C

Photo: Thom Kaine

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