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SSU Theatre Arts: photo by David Papas

By ROBERT DIGITALE

What would Honest Abe do?

In these combative times, it would be nice if Sonoma State University ‘s latest theatrical production, “Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party, ” could tell us how our most revered president would handle today’s culture wars.

I suppose that’s an unanswerable question, much like another one the play asks but doesn’t give a clear response to: Was Lincoln gay?

The conjecture on the 16th president’s sexuality instead becomes the jumping-off point for an often-saucy tale involving one of the bigger cultural clashes of our time: gay rights.

At Thursday night’s premier, which kicked of SSU Theatre Arts new season, the eight cast members excelled in making the most of this three-act play. They hung with its twists and turns, from the politically farcical to the slapstick silly to the deadly bizarre. Their energy, comedic timing and cocksure embodiment of sometimes dog-eat-dog behavior showed much talent.

Also, they looked cute as an octet of dancing Lincolns, each with chin curtain beards and stovepipe hats.

Still, the audience should come prepared for a degree of strangeness with this work. It starts with an elementary school Christmas pageant in rural Menard County, Ill. A schoolteacher produces a skit where the 9-year-olds explain to their parents how Honest Abe was in love with his best male friend.

If that educational scenario sounds believable to you, then all that follows will seem natural, from the Pulitzer-prize-winning New York Times reporter who is bent on destroying his gay-hating archenemy to said opponent’s convenient spiral into what appears to be homophobic/acohol-induced madness.

For plot, the play follows the criminal trial of the since-fired schoolteacher, who is being prosecuted by a self-righteous district attorney/former congressman. The reporter is out to get the D.A., who he blames for having made the AIDS crisis worse. A state senator also gets involved as part of a scheme for besting the D.A. in an upcoming race for the Republican gubernatorial primary.

One of the play’s twists is the chance for the audience to decide which of the three acts will go in what order (by texting the selection, of course.) Thursday’s vote seemed legit, and the mostly younger crowd enthusiastically got caught up in the outcome when it came time to choose the second act.

The playwright, Aaron Loeb, who attended Thursday’s performance, is certainly adept at dialogue. The play is filled with culturally hip zingers, raunchy provocations and cutting lines as the characters defend themselves. In one scene, the reporter and state senator heatedly debated who was standing on the higher moral ground. They each had their seemingly watertight arguments. Nonetheless, it helped to remember that each of them also had shown a willingness to push a noncombatant in front of, if not under, the proverbial bus in order to get what he/she wanted.

In that regard, the play doesn’t offer much hope for how we Americans will handle our disagreements. That may fit the times, where take-no-prisoners politics seems increasingly the order of the day. But it is an interesting choice to constantly have Lincoln(s) standing in the background as the drama unfolds. Here was a leader who stepped into the middle of our worst culture wars episode, one that left more 620,000 Americans dead. We revere him not simply because he took an assassin’s bullet, but also for where he sought to point us. It seems we still have much to learn about what he meant by “with malice toward none, with charity toward all.”

A tip of the stovepipe hat to cast members Connor Pratt, Matthew Lindberg, Phil Tran, Joe Ingalls, Jasmin Lewis, Anna Leach, Victoria Saitz and Katee Drysdale.

The play, directed by Doyle Ott, continues tonight with more performances through Oct. 24. For details, click here.

The season continues Nov. 5-15 with “The Hummingbird Wars,” followed by “Into the Woods,” Feb. 4-14, and “Hamlet,” May 3-8.