In stilettos and a cascading lilac robe, with flowers for his hair and flowers in his beard, Socrates dies rather quietly, surrounded by acolytes.
How long will it take for the hemlock to kill it? So, do we really need to know?
“Frankly,” says the philosopher in “The Hang,” Taylor Mac and Matt Ray’s new opera, which is more like an exuberant jazz cabaret minus the crackle, “there’s something uncourageous about engaging in a mystery when you have all the right information.”
Therein lies the core of Socratic wisdom to cling to your heart like a mantra as you surrender to the glorious and glamorous grandeur of the mystery that is “The Hang,” a spectacle for which you will not have all the right information — not in advance, not as you experience it, maybe not even afterwards. Narrative clarity is not one of its attributes.
With Mac (who wrote the book and lyrics) as a benevolent, virtue-thinking Socrates and sharing the limelight with the rest of the large cast and an eight-piece band led by Ray (who wrote the music), this show is intentionally amoebic in form: an act of resistance to the structure of the team that created Mac’s ultra-structured masterpiece, “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.” It’s also very, very downtown, and so moving if that’s the kind of theater that feeds you: an intimate space, a huge amount of talent, a lot of stunning design, all in the service of a work of art that has nothing to do with the mainstream.
After two years of a pandemic that still makes in-person performance a precarious endeavor, “The Hang” feels like a celebration of theater itself — a hymn to collaboration and companionship, rampant beauty and balm necessary for gathering.
Directed by Niegel Smith at the Here Arts Center, it’s not an immersive production; there is no audience participation and the actors keep their distance. Yet just stepping into the performance space, where curtain walls curve around us and our upholstered chairs are hand-painted in a myriad of different designs, is to feel immersed – and, as soon as let the music begin, embraced also. The sound of a live band envelops you in a way that music simply doesn’t unless you’re in the same room as the musicians.
‘The Hang’ – which could hardly be more different from Tim Blake Nelson’s argument-fueled play ‘Socrates’, seen at the Public Theater in 2019 – sketches out the details of Socrates’ death sentence after his conviction for corruption of young people and refusal to worship state-sanctioned gods. But this is not a bio-drama. It is a ritual of splendor and an exaltation of queerness.
Thus, when Mac’s Socrates tells the story of his trial in the song “The Best Little Court Day in Years”, he sings it in the style of Noël Coward, all arch-comic (example of rhyme: “gayer than Spartans or pantyless tartans” ) until it subsides into the pain that is at the soul of this show.
For “The Hang,” Socrates’ charge of corruption was having sex with young men, not teaching them radical ideas. She defends him because of this, and because in his refusal to bow to orthodoxy, he insisted on being himself no matter what.
Individuality is the clarion call of this show, whose happiest moments relate to the virtues various cast members bring to a performance that often feels like friends — albeit friends of another. extraordinary artistry, like Kat Edmonson and Synead Cidney Nichols with their gorgeous scatting, and Wesley Garlington with the most cheeky whistle solo you’ve ever heard.
We do not learn the names of Socrates’ acolytes; there’s too much going on for that. But each is beautifully costumed by longtime Mac collaborator Machine Dazzle, who also designed the set. Sporting a mushroom headdress and a skirt adorned with jellyfish, El Beh has one of the most striking looks – although Trebien Pollard’s orange ram horns are also something. The bold and bright makeup is by Anastasia Durasova. Also essential to festive and mourning atmospheres: Chanon Judson’s choreography and Kate McGee’s lighting.
At some point during “The Hang”, I realized my mind had drifted to another of Mac’s works, the Broadway comedy “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus”, in which Nathan Lane played Gary, a former clown of ancient Rome who wanted to cure the evils of a violent world by transforming his victims into artists in an exaggerated spectacle.
As Mac sat at the edge of the stage in “The Hang,” watching the other cast members do their thing, I found myself imagining Gary perched nearby, watching too and having fun. “The Hang” isn’t the kind of world changer Gary dreams of, nor is he trying to be. But it’s a pleasure.
“The Hang” is a show that speaks to the hustle and desire of this moment, and offers comfort in sensual pleasure. At a time of loneliness and anxiety, it exalts and exemplifies one of the greatest virtues of theatre: communion.
Through Feb. 20 at Here, Manhattan; here.org. Duration: 1h45.