John McCain made it a point to remind us that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican on The Daily Show the other night.
Abe’s a name you drop if your aim’s to associate yourself with wholesomeness and equality. Dude abolished slavery, after all. He stood for the right thing, even when that didn’t make him very popular with half of his country. And despite what must have been a dire disapproval rating at the time, looking back we don’t question the validity of the Emancipation Proclamation.
I imagine some perverse version of that line of thinking affords our current President some Zs at night. The US of A is again “a house divided,” yes; it is a nation at war. It’s also a nation waking up to the fact that politicians are lying liars who don’t write their own speeches and whose campaign managers are trying endlessly to keep them stitched into the confining bodice that is the status quo. (Was it “9-11 hero” Rudy Giuliani’s shifting stance on reproductive rights or his propensity for cross-dressing/being crazy that knocked him out of the GOP-nominee race?)
In John Strand’s Lincolnesque, the senator whose re-election campaign is central to the story isn’t a liar so much as he’s dull. (Well, he might have a funny nose. We don’t know — he’s never onstage.) Or, rather, the issues dear to his heart — like redistricting — are dull. And if we’ve learned anything from our presidential frontrunners, it’s that people want words of hope, not specific plans bogged down by the weight of technical language.
Leo (Rick Frederick) is a passable senatorial speechwriter whose blah rhetoric has sunk his boss 10 points down in the polls. As a result, Carla (Reneè Garvens), a former corporate speechwriter is brought in to lord over Leo and the campaign. As if things weren’t bad enough for him at work (Carla even subverts prosaic office sexism, referring to Leo as “sweetheart”), a delusional brother awaits Leo at home: Francis (Andy Thornton) believes himself to be Abraham Lincoln.
We’ve all pretended to be someone else. (When I was 15ish, I pretended to be Hamlet so that my now deceased grandparents would think I was nuts and leave me alone. No one likes a melancholy Dane.) But where I knew who I really was, we are never sure whether Francis does — particularly after a certain effective dream sequence. We can only be sure that to be called “Abe” causes Francis effusive glee (and with Thornton in the role, that glee is particularly infectious). Once a top player in D.C. politics, Francis is now lost in this alter ego, mimicking Lincoln’s grand speeches and dispersing advice to Leo, a big-time lawyer named Daly (Jim Mammarella), and his homeless “Secretary of War” (E.J. Roberts — who long ago acted in a student production of mine at Trinity.) You can see how he’d make a perfect writer of idealistic speeches.
Garvens is effective in the role of Carla, though I must admit I’m sorry to see her embodying a character so similar to the workplace bitch she portrayed in last season’s Fat Pig. Frederick and Thornton carry on extremely natural conversations; there’s a nice chemistry between them, both in timing and in exuding a genuine vibe of brotherly love.
AtticRep’s production is performed “in the round”: the play space is surrounded on all sides by the audience. This can be the cause of some difficulty in terms of sound — we cannot always read a character’s lips (as he or she may have his/her back to us), so enunciation is vital. Lighting, too, can be tricky. In such an intimate space, the abundance of light needed to illuminate characters in a given scene also spotlights much of the audience, complicating matters of focus and empathy.
Some aspects of the space’s architecture are beneficial, however. Balloons fall from a sound and light booth-balcony above, signaling a campaign win. The blackboard hue of the floor makes it ideal to become a literal blackboard for brainstorming (Indeed, when Frederick brandished a piece of chalk I nearly hit myself for not thinking of it before.)
The word “timely” was being thrown about in reference to the production quite a bit on opening night. For me it was almost too timely, too direct, perhaps … like a little murkiness would have been preferable (instead of, “Whack! This is why you like Obama, you fool!”). All the same I don’t expect to top the sight of Thornton orating Lincolnesquely over the offstage coital moaning of Leo and Carla offstage anytime soon. Certainly no manner of televised debate could compete. •
Through May 18
One Trinity Place