Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Review: In “The Hang,” Taylor Mac Invites You to a Kiki about Socrates

The Hang (c) Maria Baranova

Theater: The Hang 

Premise: Well, I’ll try. Taylor Mac plays Socrates as a sort of mermaid King Lear hybrid channeling the spirit of Madeline Kahn. Socrates is sentenced to death for, among many things, his homosexuality and questioning of societal norms. At first, we think it’s a party to celebrate his life as Ryan Chittaphong, playing Plato, is documenting the event, which will ultimately become a piece about Socrates called “Apology.” Socrates shames Plato for this and pleads with him to “put down that device,” which in this production is a typewriter he wears around his neck (but we get the modern reference). Themes such as virtue and the value of the plays of Aristophanes (specifically his play “The Clouds,” which was about Socrates) are debated at this party as each guest, as well as each member of the band, gets to take center stage to sing, play or celebrate. But what we soon realize is that the gathering might all be in Socrates’ mind as he is slowly being poisoned by the hemlock he has ingested. 

My Take: I only know Taylor Mac as a playwright, having seen Taylor's transgender comedy “Hir” at Playwrights Horizons as well as “Gary,” a surreal take on Titus Andronicus, which played miraculously on Broadway starring Nathan Lane. But Taylor Mac is also a celebrated downtown performer, mostly known for the Pulitzer Prize-nominated behemoth “A 24 Decade History of Popular Music” in 2017. Here, Taylor is collaborating with composer Matt Ray, and the show is a mad (in the best possible sense of the word) fantasia set to a jazzy, infectious score. Director Niegel Smith immerses you into a technicolored, neon-splashed world, which is soon populated with one of the best ensembles working right now in New York. To highlight a few would be unfair to the others, but I must mention J. Walter Hawkes’ trombone duet with himself, jazz singer Kate Edmonson’s “Scolding Old Codger,” Wesley Garlington’s whistling and Jessica Lurie’s virtuoso saxophone solo. But each performer is essential to the success of this self-proclaimed “opera.” And while it was a joy to “hang” (which unfortunately has modern connotations to another death sentence) with this unique ensemble, it is Taylor Mac as the impish, sad (but never maudlin) and reflective Socrates that is the sun around which everyone else revolve. And, having only heard about but never experienced judy's* unique world view, call me a Taylor Mac convert. 

The Hang (c) Maria Baranova

VIP: Machine Dazzle. This is my first encounter with this wildly inventive costume and scenic designer, but judging from his Instagram account, the world of “The Hang” is in keeping with his artistic aesthetic. The sets have a versatility to them while always being functional, but it’s the costumes that dazzles the senses. And as the actors shed or adds a layer, their costumes transform into something totally different. The colors, the vibrancy, the textures of his costumes and set engulf your senses, down to the chairs the audience sits on. 

*Mac’s preferred pronoun is judy.

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