What kind of party do you throw when you’re about to die? It’s a very morbid question these days. But in ‘The Hang’, a new opera by the artist Taylor Mac, the answer is about equal parts philosophy and decor.
Written with the composer Matt Ray, the show is about the death of Socrates, who, after being convicted of corruption of the youth of Athens and sentenced to death by hemlock, spent his last hours talking about virtue with his friends. And a few tracks in a recent run-through of production at the HERE Arts Center in downtown Manhattan, Mac — in a purple tulle robe and appropriately Socratic pandemic beard — began dragging giant beanbags forward as a bar took shape in the corner. from the stage.
“Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh,” Mac sang as the eight-piece band leaned into a groove, “I’m in it for the hang.”
That’s sort of a credo for Mac, whose work, including the epic “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” celebrates community and connection through a radical queer lens. And “The Hang,” made with some of Mac’s longtime collaborators, puts those themes back on stage, in a phantasmagoric, hard-to-capture mix.
The show, which lasts 105 minutes without intermission, takes the form of a gathering of “radical fairies,” who come together every year to mourn and re-enact Socrates’ death. There is a lot of whining, but also queer romp, ancient Greek in-jokes, a comic monologue in the style of Noël Coward and a meditative song sung in a toilet.
And yes, there is virtue—not in the sense of starchy purity (to say the least), but the Socratic sense of knowledge and incessant questioning, which for Mac isn’t just a matter of logical arguments or even words.
“One of the angles I wanted to use on this show was to say there’s more,” Mac said in a video interview. “The Socratic questions can also be expressed physically, aesthetically, and sonically.”
“The Hang,” which begins previews Thursday and runs through February 20, may seem like a counterpoint to the pandemic, which has shut down not only theater but, for a while, most non-virtual hangouts. (Originally, the opera was set to premiere earlier this month at the Prototype Festival, which was canceled due to the Omicron wave.)
But Mac said the idea started sprouting several years ago, as a “palate cleanser” after “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” a sprawling meditation on American history through 246 songs, which Mac performed in 2016 as a 24-hour marathon at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.
The first impulse was to create a solo theater piece based on Plato’s “Apology,” an account of the trial of Socrates, which Mac had recently read for the first time. “I wanted to do something simple,” Mac said. “And it was also so relevant to what was going on — the conversation about justice and virtue, and how those things were manipulated to end curiosity.”
But nothing with Mac, a self-proclaimed maximalist, stays simple or small. By the end of 2019, “The Hang” had become an ensemble piece, and he sent a preliminary script to Ray, who had arranged the songs in “A 24-Decade History.”
Ray, who has been playing jazz since he was a kid, said his sonic input was a wailing saxophone, which became the sound of the poison played on the show by a trio that sometimes roamed the stage, as if spreading it. “I just started hearing this sound in my head,” he said. As Mac continued to email him lyrics (in no particular order), Ray composed what became the show’s 26 songs, based on New Orleans jazz, swing, soul jazz, influences from Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, and other influences, though he hesitated. for some strong labels. “I don’t like to write things that make an impression,” Ray said. “I just wrote down the things I like to play.”
Mac describes the show as a sort of “fever dream prayer,” an idea literally portrayed throughout the set, created by costume designer Machine Dazzle, another longtime collaborator. He’s the one who suggested that the action actually took place inside Socrates’ body, complete with a fabric-draped proscenium for the rib cage.
The atmosphere is wild and messy, although Dazzle said the pandemic had subtly affected his approach to costumes, and not just because the price of tulle had doubled.
“People are different than they were two years ago,” he says. “You can tell they’ve been thinking. They are more in their heads.”
At the start of the 2020 pandemic lockdown, the core creative team began holding virtual hangouts twice a month to talk about the show (and what they missed to see each other in person). The first of three workshops organized by HERE took place last summer in a tent in a public park.
Niegel Smith, the director, said the casting was about “building friendship” as well as being an artist. The troupe of nine performers and eight musicians (choreographed on the show) is a mix of veterans of previous Mac projects and new hires, including jazz vocalists Kat Edmonson and Queen Esther and Broadway veteran Kenneth Ard (“Cats,” “Starlight Express,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”).
Ard had already left the theater when the pandemic hit and worked as a corporate chef. He moved to San Francisco during the lockdown, but came back to New York to audition on the recommendation of a friend Dazzle.
“I’d had enough of the commercial theater stuff, but I hadn’t really experienced artistic theater as I feel it is,” he said in a video interview. “Matt Ray’s score just blew me away. I just thought, I have to sing these songs.”
Edmondson was recruited by Ray, with whom she has performed at Carnegie Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center and elsewhere. It’s her first stage role and, in the song “Virtue,” an opportunity for some serious scatting, something she’s only recently added to her own live shows. “It’s a bit new to me,” she said. “It’s so much fun.”
The physical demands of “The Hang” aren’t as extreme as those of Mac’s last play, “The Fre,” which put the actors — and the audience — in a giant ball pit. (The play, directed by Smith, was still in previews at the Flea when the pandemic hit.)
But at recent rehearsal for “The Hang,” artist El Beh’s large skirt, adorned with Medusa heads, kept knocking over the urn where the cast members burn their fake Socratic beards during “OK Boomer,” a riff about cultural ephemerality. And strategies were devised on the best way to plop on a giant ottoman during an extremely up-tempo philosophical dialogue called ‘The Ephemeral’.
Chanon Judson, the choreographer, described the movement, like so much of the show, as a collage. “I really like to scan and sponge the room in everyone’s quirky way of being in the room,” she said.
In Plato’s “Apology,” Socrates’ downfall is attributed to Aristophanes, who in his play “The Clouds” had ridiculed Socrates as a charlatan, thereby turning public opinion against him. “The Hang” definitely gets its digs at Aristophanes. But in Mac’s retelling, if Socrates has a foil, it’s Plato himself, lurking around the action, putting it all down to an ancient Greek stenographer.
Plato was famously critical of theatricality and condemned drama as a form of lying that manipulates audiences, with sometimes dangerous consequences. It’s an idea that turns “The Hang” inside out.
“I wanted to find out, can we be as theatrical as possible, can we bring in the queer culture and find a way to express a truth instead of a lie?” said Mac. “You can’t hide when you sing. You can try, but in the end you always tell some kind of truth about who you are.’