Chicago Theater Review: ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS A F*GG*T (About Face Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 13, 2015

in Theater-Chicago

CLOSET EMANCIPATOR

For what it’s worth, the other “F-word” is now a play’s title, presumably rivaling the “N-word” for shock effect. Well, anything called Abraham Lincoln Was A F*gg*t is not meant to soothe the status quo: The questing character in Bixby Elliot’s provocation, a transgressive Chicago premiere from About Face Theatre, is a 17-year-old gay kid. Cal wants to stir stuff up as much as he is: He embarks on a crusade to prove that Lincoln–a national role model, portrait on our greenbacks, and Cal’s personal hero–was homosexual, with at least two undocumented lovers. A lavender legacy (balanced with a saving skepticism), Abraham Lincoln Was a F*gg*t may not prove its thesis but, as theatrical speculation, it challenges and critiques–big time.

Jessie Fisher, Lane Flores, Matt Farabee, Nathan Hosner and Derrick Trumbly in About Face Theatre’s Chicago premiere of ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS A F*GG*T by Bixby Elliot, directed by Andrew Volkoff.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

It’s 2008 and the country, caught up in “hope and change,” is ripe for renewal. A very reticent teen rebel, Cal (Matt Farabee), inspired by the self-made beat of Michael Jackson, intends to “out” the Great Emancipator. He’s aided by Skylor (Lane Flores), his more effeminate classmate and lover, who he helps to run as an openly gay candidate for student president–which gains Skylor an implacable, if gratuitous, enemy, a homophobic bully named Tommy (Dana Black).

Nathan Hosner and Matt Farabee in About Face Theatre’s Chicago premiere of ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS A F*GG*T by Bixby Elliot, directed by Andrew Volkoff.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

In action-paralleling (and, happily, non-anachronistic) flashbacks, Cal reprises Lincoln’s four-year acquaintanceship with Joshua Speed (Derrick Trumbly): He’s the young lawyer who the lanky 28-year-old meets in a Springfield mattress store in 1837 and who he sleeps with (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Not Lincoln’s first love (it was either Anne Rutledge or Speed, as you wish), Mary Todd (Jessie Fisher) is a political “beard” who grows increasingly jealous of the wrong sex. With good reason–even at the end, Lincoln (Nathan Hosner), who suspiciously has spent a quarter of his presidency at the Soldier’s Home, is democratically sleeping with Captain Derickson (also Trumbly), who reminds him of happier times (namely Speed). Mary, alas, just means scandalous debts, grief for their lost son, séance-shopping, and incipient insanity.

Nathan Hosner and Derrick Trumbly in About Face Theatre’s Chicago premiere of ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS A F*GG*T by Bixby Elliot, directed by Andrew Volkoff.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

It’s blatantly revealing that Cal and the Illinois “rail-splitter” share the same birthday, even more so that Lincoln and Mary are played by the same actors who present Cal’s reluctantly gay uncle and his protective mother. (Along with Lincoln’s lovers, Trumbly also depicts the frustrated lover of Cal’s conservative uncle.) Cal’s private demons clearly fuel his urge for historical revisionism. His assumption that somehow it’s more right to be gay if famous mentors once were remains unquestioned until the play’s finale (does it matter?). For the audience this roller-coaster staging by Andrew Volkoff will pay off in post-show discussions as well as real-time thrill-peaking. About Face’s six deft players travel time well and, even better, never condescend to characters whose frailties are exhibits A through Z.

Matt Farabee, Jessie Fisher and Nathan Hosner in About Face Theatre’s Chicago premiere of ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS A F*GG*T by Bixby Elliot, directed by Andrew Volkoff.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Both the mid-19th-century backstory and Cal’s 2008 “emancipation proclamation” dovetail in Cal’s fateful presentation of his “proof”. It’s declared at no less than Ford’s Theater, a place that seems to encourage assassination and attract martyrs. Whatever truth hides in Cal’s sexual speculations about “Honest” Abe, the kneejerk bigotry that slaughtered the 16th President remains a clear and present danger.

Matt Farabee, Derrick Trumbly, Nathan Hosner and Dana Black in About Face Theatre’s Chicago premiere of ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS A F*GG*T by Bixby Elliot, directed by Andrew Volkoff.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

At 145 minutes Elliot takes too long to prosecute Cal’s case. Despite the earnest performances and informative projections, some of the time jumps can’t carry their weight. Inevitably, Elliot spins so many plates that a few are bound to crash. But the core value of this necessary show plays out well in both eras–the need for emotional authenticity. Oddly undermining the drama’s content and intent is the hope it holds out–that one day sexual orientation will matter much less than, as M.L.K. put it, the “content of your character.” This play practically lives to be superseded.

Lane Flores, Matt Farabee, Nathan Hosner, Dana Black and Jessie Fisher in About Face Theatre’s Chicago premiere of ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS A F*GG*T by Bixby Elliot, directed by Andrew Volkoff.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Abraham Lincoln Was a F*gg*t
About Face Theatre
Upstairs Studio
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Thurs and Fri at 7:30; Sat at 3 and 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on July 5, 2015
for tickets, call 773.404.7336  or visit www.aboutfacetheatre.org

for info on Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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