Wow. Mind blown: Not only is The Lincoln Debate a brand-new play celebrating its world premiere; it’s the first production of a brand-new local LGBTQ+ theater company, The Bent.
Then there’s the subject matter: It’ll blow your mind, too.
I thought the title may refer to Lincoln’s famous series of debates with Sen. Stephen Douglas (something we’ve all heard of but know little about), but no: The debate is really over whether or not Lincoln was gay.
Whaaaaaaaaat? Lincoln? Didn’t he father a whole troupe of kids? Well, yes … and Mary Todd Lincoln started it off by giving birth exactly nine months after they were finally married. But this play deals with the years when he was a bachelor before that.
Let’s back up a minute and find out about the people involved in this. I actually met playwright Terry Ray before the show and chatted with him about the play. Ray wrote it during COVID (See? Some people used their time wisely; they didn’t just get fat!), and result is a play that is lively, funny and certainly thought-provoking. Ray’s talents have led to a career in acting, directing and playwriting—his play Electricity ran for four years in Palm Springs and is headed to off-Broadway. He’s now the managing director of The Bent, the area’s new nonprofit LGBTQ+ theater.
The director of the play is Steven Rosenbaum, and what a job he has done. Yes, the script is lively and fascinating, but it took some kind of genius to bring it to the audience. He keeps his actors moving beautifully, with lots of touching. He is responsible for the tone of the play, and he has worked hard with his actors, exploring the wordy script and ferreting out the laughs behind the words. He’s the artistic director of The Bent; he and Ray welcomed the audience and emotionally recounted their winding road that led to this performance. The confessed that they opened a bank account for the company just before this play, with a whole $10 in it! This is how it begins, folks.
The actors, all locals, bring a high-energy vibe to the play’s wordiness. The debate rages back and forth while it explores Lincoln’s life in and out of politics.
Chip Steele, dressed in a blue suit, is The Guide. He walks us through Lincoln’s life, and at unexpected times, he interrupts the action to throw a question out to the audience or to act as narrator. He brings a calm seriousness to the action when things verge on getting out of hand. We couldn’t do it without him; he is the voice of reason in the turmoil.
Laura Martinez plays the well-educated Mary Todd Lincoln with compassion and ironic humor. Martinez is the youngest member of the troupe and brings her Mary Todd a delightful nonpolitical and self-centered contrast—as a young lady of that time certainly would. Mary Todd Lincoln famously suffered from mental illness, but this is not addressed, so the actress is freed up to plot and plan her life with Lincoln. She earns several good laughs from the audience for her work.
Renee Poignard is a breath of fresh air as she plays several characters, including slaves. She creates a fascinating take on these characters of the times, which Poignard plays with a unique combination of total enthusiasm and an actor’s detached presence. Her hair will astonish you, and her face is fascinating. She occasionally lapses into a modern-day mode of speech, shrugs it off, and then returns to her committed and enthusiastic roles.
Alex Price plays several parts, most notably Joshua Speed, Lincoln’s best friend and possibly his lover. Price brings the perfect combination of intimacy and detached friendship to the key role. Although new to Palm Springs, he has dropped any accent he might’ve picked up while living in Nashville. He keeps us guessing all the time, which is what the playwright wants, as to whether the relationship with Lincoln went further than simple friendship.
Jason Reale plays Lincoln. Even though he’s neither as tall nor as stringy as Lincoln was (Who is?), Reale has no trouble convincing the audience that he IS Abraham Lincoln, often with the aid of a perfect stovepipe hat. When he and Joshua Speed strip down to their shorts, he seems perfectly at ease. (Without ruining it, I suggest you brace yourself.) His experience pays off in this complex role, and we look forward to seeing his actor’s future unfold.
The energy is evenly distributed among these actors, who worked their way through some tricky speeches. Don’t forget that back in this time, people were still emerging from Shakespearean English! But as actors, their diction holds, and their breath control helps them through.
The stage is kept simple, with bunting on three sides, and a two-stair riser in the middle. The actors make full use of it, and the rear wall of the stage changes constantly, with well-selected photos from that time.
We so look forward to seeing what becomes of this new LGBTQ+ theater company. Let’s get out and support them!
What’s in it for you? Well … this play will blow your mind.
The Bent’s production of The Lincoln Debate will be performed at 7 p.m., Friday, Dec. 16; Wednesday, Dec. 21; and Wednesday through Friday, Dec. 28-30, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $35. For tickets or more information, visit psculturalcenter.org.
This fabulous play left my brain in happy tatters, and also affected my funny bone big time! I consider myself fortunate to have witnessed the premier performance, and the refreshing re-inception and re-imagination of a truly LGBT theater in Coachella Valley!
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