BOTTOM LINE: Really good for the Fringe with some great moments, although it is a bit long, a bit uneven, and potentially a bit over-rated.
Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party is the paradigmatic Fringe title. You have the feeling that it could be a silly, gimmicky mess, or else it could be surprisingly interesting. It veers much more to the latter is an incredibly thoughtful show. But there are gimmicky elements as well, and I think these prevent Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party from being the theatrical achievement it aims to be.
Since Abe is known for being honest - let’s be real, the title Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party is about as accurate as the phrase “Holy Roman Empire”- the show is not a dance party, or really any kind of party, it isn’t really about Abraham Lincoln, and it isn’t even particularly gay (yes, there some brief moments of dancing Abes, but this is a minor diversion). The play is centered around the trial of a schoolteacher in Illinois, arrested for presenting a pageant in which she had her young students tell that Abraham Lincoln was homosexual. Except Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party isn’t really about this trial, nor is it about whether or not Abe was gay. Rather, it is about how different people experience these events. After a brief prologue, there are three acts, told from the points of view of three people: the prosecutor, the defense attorney, and the famous journalist who comes into town to cover the story.
As one might expect, we learn more about the events with each act and missing information in one act is filled in with the next one. However, by the third act, much of the material starts becoming old. Because an audience member decides the order of the three acts, they need to work in any order. While this seems interesting in theory, I think the play would have been more successful if playwright Aaron Loeb decided the order for us, allowing him to determine what was revealed when. As it is, we have heard enough about certain events in the first two acts to make watching them unfold in the third act less interesting than they should be. (I suspect this is the case no matter the order one sees). Also, I noticed a few inconsistencies from one act to the other that might be avoided if the order were pre-determined.
I’m also not sure about the choice of the three main characters. I would have liked a story about the journalist, the prosecutor, and the teacher. The inclusion of the defense attorney turned this into a story of political maneuvering (both she and the prosecutor are scheming to become governor). And while I appreciate that this wasn’t a didactic tale about “an issue,” I would have liked more of the play that I saw in the part about Anton, the journalist (played by the superb Mark Anderson Phillips). His scene in the cornfield with Jerry (an equally superb Michael Phillis) was the best scene in the play, extraordinarily touching and intimate without being at all preachy. In fact, this scene was so surprising to me because much of what had come before had been a bit campy, especially Anton’s sidekick Esmerelda (played by Velina Brown, who also plays the defense attorney).
I think one of the biggest problems with this play was the uneven tone. It didn’t seem to know if it wanted to be campy, silly fun, or else a serious, thought-provoking piece. Certainly, something can have aspects of both, but I sensed a certain identity-crisis here. Whereas a silly campy Fringe show might demand a convoluted plot filled with shocking twists and turns, a multi-faceted character piece that aims to show several points of view would do better to simplify, simplify, simplify.
There is a lot worth seeing here, even if it is a bit long at two and a half hours. Among other things, Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party has a great set design. Bill English’s set consists of three panels in which the different set pieces are hidden. Along with a cornfield curtain, this set is the savviest I have ever seen in the Fringe (a festival that severely limits design elements). Not only does English’s set work well, it also looks good, and even has a few surprises.
Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party was sold out even before the first performance, so tickets to the remaining show will certainly be hard to come by. I’d bet given its success, it will reappear at the Fringe Encores series. I’m not sure that Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party lives up to the hype implied by its early sell out, but it is a solid piece of theatre that I’m glad I saw.
(Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party plays at the HERE Arts Center- Mainstage Theater, 145 6th Avenue- enter on Dominick, one block south of Spring. The show is approximately 2 hours 30 minutes long, with two brief intermissions. The final performance is Saturday 8/29 at 7:15 pm. For tickets and show info visit www.abrahamlincolnsbiggaydanceparty.com and for more FringeNYC info visit fringenyc.org.)