Taffeta, one of three characters in Lavender Men, describes what we are about to see as a “fantasia”. The piece explores a personal chapter in the life of Abraham Lincoln as filtered through the mind — indeed the entire body — of playwright Roger Q. Mason. In 1860, Lincoln mentored a young law clerk, Elmer Ellsworth. Ellsworth went on to help Lincoln campaign for president. He eventually made history of his own when he became the first Union casualty of the American Civil War, killed while removing a large Confederate flag from the rooftop of a Virginia inn. That the men admired each other and became good friends is well documented. In Lavender Men, Mason speculates that the two meant much more to one another.
The fast moving script, developed in Skylight Theater Company’s resident playwrights lab, covers many themes and styles. Taffeta proposes that she take Abe and Elmer back in time to reexamine their relationship. She will take on the role of “everyone else” including a young soldier, a cleaning woman, Mary Todd Lincoln and even a tree near a swimming hole. Black, large, boisterous, and proudly queer, she is everything the two men are not, opening up plenty of space for conversation about oppressed voices throughout our history. Themes of body image issues and social biases are explored, though the main plot always returns to a heartfelt love story.
The play works best when it is self-aware such as when a character questions what is currently being taught in classrooms. Mason seems to be using personal experience to deepen the emotions of the storytelling, which also makes the viewpoint very specific. Their haunting voices literally make themselves heard in Taffeta’s ears. The work does an admirable job of showing the imperfections of Lincoln’s legacy, but there are missed opportunities to connect those events more tightly to today’s political and social climate, particularly as that relates to Lincoln’s own party.
Director Lovell Holder, who has been attached to the production since a reading at New York’s Circle in the Square, has brought out an intensity in all three actors. His staging makes great use of a relatively small space and every speck of furniture. The company has wisely hired Seth Dorcey to direct and edit the streaming version so that the flow translates for home viewers and harnesses the power of the enthusiastic live audience. The set designed by Stephen Gifford uses a wardrobe as the main doorway so that Abe and Elmer literally go into and out of the closet throughout. The backdrop includes some wonderful detail — a photo of Frederick Douglas, a paste-up of Lincoln — but nothing that distracts from the terrific performances. Like a proper fantasia, there is original music by David Gonzalez which smooths the transitions ranging from burlesque to gravitas with cello played by John Swihart. The shifts in mood are further supported by Dan Weingarten’s atmospheric lighting. Erin Bednarz’s sound design also incorporates some well-timed gun shots.
Swirling in Wendell Carmichael’s glorious skirts and bonnets, playwright Mason portrays their unique creation, Taffeta, as bold yet self critical, wise, but with lessons to learn. The chemistry between Pete Ploszek’s Abe and Alex Esola’s Elmer is electric. The two maintain connection as they move through time — now, then and never — while manage Taffeta’s coaxing, interfering, and micromanagement. This renders the tightly choreographed slo-mo love scene superfluous and, with Taffeta as a witness, cheapens what had felt genuine.
Lavender Men is an engaging and emotionally charged look at pages from history you think you know. It is currently playing at the Skylight Theater at 1816 1/2 North Vermont Ave in Los Angeles. It is also available On Demand which is how I was able to enjoy it in New York City. Run time is 95 minutes with no intermission. Seats for the live show are $23 – $80. Showtimes are Saturday 8:30pm, Sunday 3:00pm, and Monday 7:30pm. The virtual experience is $28.75 for a secure link good for 72 hours. Tickets through September 4 are available at https://skylighttheatre.org/program-lavender-men/.