Greek To Me

Taylor Mac in THE HANG at HERE – photo by Maria Baranova
Taylor Mac in “The Hang.”
Maria Baranova

Taylor Mac delights in blasting convention. The gender-elusive performance artist insists being referred to as “judy” in place of standard pronouns. In a manifesto in the program for Mac’s latest show, “The Hang,” judy declares that this pronoun choice is an “art piece” that’s at once “delicious” and “annoying” to navigate.

The same might be said of “The Hang,” now playing at HERE Off Broadway. Mac’s bold, queer-centric, genre-mashing aesthetic is on full display, and it’s as confounding as it is exhilarating.

On a macro level, “The Hang” is a jazz opera that imagines the Greek philosopher Socrates contemplating the vagaries of virtue in his final hours, as filtered through the jaundiced writings of Plato (no texts by Socrates exist).

When Socrates was sentenced to death after being convicted of heresy and corrupting Athenian male youths, he ingested poisonous Hemlock. The opera portrays a kind of fever dream as the poison slowly shuts down his bodily functions one by one. His addled brain is the last to go.

With a book and lyrics by Mac, the piece eschews traditional plot or formal structure. It’s a crazy-quilt of music, verse, ideas, and musings that does little to shed light on the biography of the polarizing philosopher. And that’s by design.

You see, Mac is a fan of the Socratic method, which advocates asking pointed questions rather than dictating facts, and this work reflects that conceit. The playwright believes that wondering is an aspirational virtue, and it’s imperative that theater challenges the status quo.

According to Mac, most theatrical drama follows the arc of the straight male orgasm, “engorging to catharsis.” He suggests, however, that the radical queer male orgasm may be “varied, multiple, and circular,” and so should theater.

Synead Cidney Nichols and Kat Edmonson in “The Hang.”Maria Baranova

At the top of the spectacle, we witness a festive procession of Athenians — acting as a proverbial Greek Chorus — singing a dirge to mourn the imminent demise of the bearded hero, played with a regal-like detachment by Mac. These flamboyant characters evoke genderqueer Radical Faeries, 19th Century British pantomime actors, and New York Club Kids from the early 1990s. The year is 399 B.C., though that’s the precisely to type of historical detail the show takes pains to omit.

The energetic, talented company does its best to master the impossibly dense material. There is no character development because, well, nobody other than the doomed Socrates and the dutiful Plato is named.

To be sure, “The Hang” is a feast for the eyes and ears. The costumes, designed by Machine Dazzle, are stunning, candy-hued confections that defy description. Dazzle also crafted the set, an otherworldly environment festooned with swaths of fabric and beanbag chairs (the script says it depicts the innards of Socrates’ body, though that is not readily evident). The constant shifts in mood are deftly articulated by Kate McGee’s lighting design.

Under the direction of Niegel Smith, the ethos is homespun and rough around the edges. It recalls other queer, let’s-put-on-a-show traditions like the Ridiculous Theatrical Company from the 1960s and 1970s. The eight musicians often vacate their spots on the periphery to take center stage. If the jazz ensemble is not as tight as it could be, perhaps that’s part of the plan. Raw spontaneity is favored over practiced polish.

The 26 musical numbers, scored by Matt Ray and choreographed by Chanon Judson, are an odd mix of jazz, blues, and Broadway (did I detect notes of Sondheim?). At times the lyrics are cryptic, bordering on the nonsensical.

My favorite number finds Socrates, in Noël Coward mode, recounting the court trial, which was more about his love for boys than political heresy. Here’s a snippet:

So you know the corruption

they charged was eruption

of the member of stiff Socrates.

Oh yes it was clear

he was tried for his queer

appetites and not what they said.

For he’d slept with the son

of—well at least one—

and encouraged the others to bed…

Not that this enterprise is only about virtue in ancient Greece. Anachronistic touches are sprinkled throughout, including barbed references to climate change and Mitch McConnell. One sassy number is titled “Okay Boomer.” At one point, as Plato is pecking away on a typewriter device, Socrates asks, “Could you put that down and be present with me for a moment?”

As the “The Hang” reached its inevitable conclusion, with a whimper instead of a bang, I was exhausted. This ambitious, rowdy work achieves Mac’s goal of challenging the status quo. Whether that’s enough to fully satisfy theatergoers is an open question worthy of Socrates himself.

THE HANG | HERE, 145 Sixth Ave. (at Dominick St.) | Wed.-Sat. at 8:30 p.m.; Sun. at 2 p.m. | Through Feb. 20 | $35-$100; https://here.org/shows/the-hang/ | 1 hour and 45 mins. with no intermission

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