Review: Abraham Lincoln Gets His Chance at True Love in Roger Q. Mason's Lavender Men
The world premiere play is now running at the Skylight Theatre in Los Angeles.
Roger Q. Mason burns the history books with Lavender Men, a world premiere fantasia that re-envisions the passions of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. The play, produced by Playwrights' Arena & Skylight Theatre Company at the Skylight, is a revolutionary response to a country focused on keeping its constituents disenfranchised and invisible. As actor and writer, Mason is a force of nature, ready to bring all pillars of repressive society crashing down.
Taffeta (Mason), an otherworldly presence, brings together Abraham Lincoln (Pete Ploszek) and his dear friend Elmer Ellsworth (Alex Esola) from the afterlife so that they can realize their love for each other. Taffeta promises them if they explore their love before her, they can alter their destiny. But isn't fate inescapable?
Taffeta is such an intriguing character. She acts as narrator and Greek chorus, but also as puppet master and at times voyeur. She helps these historical figures find their post-life bliss while also working out her own trauma. Taffeta plays several characters within Lincoln's life (including his wife, Mary Todd, and an office cleaner) who are all marginalized in some way. The Taffeta character is always indicting the insulting way the collective "America" strikes down anyone too short, too heavy, too effeminate. The play reinforces this with the character of Elmer, limited in his opportunities because of his height.
Calling Lavender Men a fantasia, as Taffeta does early in the play, draws a parallel to Tony Kushner's classic work Angels in America. Both plays take real situations and skew them toward the illusory. In both plays, actors play multiple roles, and comment on the fabric of society trapping those deemed inappropriate under its flag, stifling them. In both plays, the lovers are condemned for being outsiders, but they are also entitled because of their gender and race.
As an actor, Mason reveals layers of anger and pain, while protecting themself with the armor of cutting humor and drag queen phrases. Every time they climb the stage, they grab the audience's attention. Both Esola and Ploszek are focused and in sync. Even when the characters don't touch, their hunger for each other is palpable. Ploszek never caricatures the famous figure but manages to convey those mannerisms that make the President instantly identifiable.
Director Lovell Holder, who has been with the play since its readings both at Skylight and Broadway's Circle in the Square in 2019, keeps the thought-provoking comedy absorbing. The set by Stephen Gifford is a clever collection of historical photos, law books glued to the wall, and, at the back center, a collage image of Lincoln made of book pages. Erin Bednarz's sound design keeps the bullet sounds frightening and the accusatory voices in Taffeta's head swirling above the audience like menacing vultures. Choreographer Jobel Medina forges a love scene between Elmer and Abe that represents more than two bodies squashing together in a sexual act, but a merging of two souls, a true sense of making love.
Mason's provocative Lavender Men turns the tables on the land of the free, exposing the hardships of all those who don't meet the Aryan "ideal" of the strong, tall, cis white male and demanding that they be seen and heard. Mason is a major voice in the theatrical vanguard.