I would have given almost anything to hear Aaron Loeb pitch the concept for his latest play to SF Playhouse, which commissioned the work. With the title Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party, who wouldn't?
Picture the scene. The dramatist stands before the producers, clears his throat, and describes his play thus: "To beat a political rival, an ambitious Illinois senator defends a grade school teacher arrested for staging an unorthodox school Christmas pageant that outs the 16th U.S. president as gay. Dancing ensues. Think Top Dog/Underdog meets Milk."
Or maybe Loeb's pitch went more like this: "A Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter for The New York Times travels to Illinois to sniff out the truth behind the trial of a grade school teacher charged by an archconservative politician for putting a homoerotic spin on a school Christmas pageant about the 16th U.S. president, but ends up falling for the politician's handsome, pie-making son. Dancing ensues. Think Sweeney Todd meets Brokeback Mountain."
Then again, he might equally well have said: "An Illinois congressman's legal stand against a grade school teacher for brainwashing her students into believing the 16th U.S. president was queer turns sour when a political rival joins the defense team and the president's ghost runs amok. Dancing ensues. Think The Crucible meets The Sixth Sense."
I can just imagine the bemused looks on the producers' faces: "That's fine, Aaron, but you've actually described three plays, not one. Which of these, if any, fits the bill?" The answer would, of course, be all three. For the core conceit of Loeb's highly ambitious, often hilarious, and dramaturgically hairy comedy is that the audience gets to vote on which order to watch three different perspectives on the same events, and at the end, decide whether the teacher charged with besmirching Lincoln's reputation with an unconventional Christmas pageant is guilty of the crime of polluting young minds.
Multiperspective dramas are nothing new. Stage works like Michael Frayn's Noises Off (1982) and films like Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) have played with the idea, and the element of chance has been a staple of live performance for centuries. Any production featuring audience participation can vary radically from night to night. In the world of videogames (which Loeb, as chief operating officer for the Planet Moon gaming firm, knows something about), multiperspectivity and player-induced structuring go hand-in-hand. As such, the playwright — who directed last year's videogame-inspired First Person Shooter at SF Playhouse — is equipped for the challenge of combining multiple viewpoints with audience participation.
Loeb generally pulls off the stunt with aplomb. In the Mel Brooks–like prologue, the production's seven actors — all dressed in the statutory Lincoln drag of stovepipe hat, black overcoat, and beard — embody a bunch of fourth-graders acting out their R-rated Christmas pageant. They then ask the audience which vantage point they'd like to watch first, repeating the question for the remaining two options later on. The three choices include a zany, West Wing–infused tale of political intrigue told from the perspective of Regina Lincoln, a moderate black female Republican senator (an uptight Velina Brown) hoping to become state governor; a flamboyant love story experienced by a New York journalist (Mark Anderson Phillips, in one of his most nuanced performances to date) that resembles the denouement of a Jazz Age musical romance with its over-the-top characters and sudden outbursts of rumba dancing; and a dramatic morality tale told from the point of view of a homophobic congressman (a cartoonish yet empathetic Joe Kady) that has the cynical yet dreamlike quality of a Coen Brothers movie.
The three acts don't precisely follow the same plot. Characters come and go, but there's enough cross-fertilization between each story to help viewers make sense of events, even if getting a handle on the playwright's loopy landscape takes a while. The cast greatly helps to smooth the way, despite some flubbed lines the night I saw the show that occasionally detracted from director Chris Smith's seamless, taut mise-en-scène. Like the Andy Warhol–inspired Lincoln images emblazoned on Bill English's versatile modal set design, the play truly puts a new spin on a political icon, forcing us to reconsider Lincoln's legacy. Part pop-culture–infused political satire, part kitsch love story, and part high-kicking surrealist "happening," Big Gay Dance Party is one of the most unusual feats of theatrical expression I've seen all year.
It's also one of the most discombobulating. Loeb can't quite keep the three stories under control. Because the chance-laden format means no one act necessarily precedes another, each segment is riddled with exposition. One or two of the most memorable characters, such as the diva-like Cuban photographer who pops up in the journalist's love story, disappointingly don't reappear anywhere else. Elsewhere, extraneous bits of action bog down the denouement.
Dramaturgically speaking, Loeb would probably have been better off defining the structure rather than leaving it to chance. The audience voting concept, offering commentary on the democratic process, is certainly clever. But it has its limitations. On one hand, it celebrates the tenets of the democracy upon which this country is founded — a democracy that Lincoln, perhaps more than any other U.S. president, has come to represent. But inasmuch as the structural shortcomings make the play appear gimmicky, the democratic system comes out looking like a bit of a joke. Then again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. As well as being great fun, Loeb's play teaches us to take nothing at face value, be it a president's sexual orientation or every American's right to vote.