Theater review: “The Hang” by Taylor Mac

El Beh in The Hang, here.
Photo: Maria Baranova

Taylor Mac writes maximalist, flamboyant and mythopoetic works, full of flights of verse, queer references, excessive drag and allusions. They sometimes bloom fabulously like peacocks – Mac’s masterpiece, the megacabaret A 24-decade history of popular music, took 24 hours to perform (or see) – and they sometimes cower like snails, so introspective that they disappear into a sort of shell excluding the audience.

Most Macs The shot is the peacock type. You could describe it as a postmodern jazz opera, with thrilling music by Matt Ray, or you could think of it as a drag extravaganza dedicated to matters of the mind. Anyway, he imagines the last moments of Socrates, condemned to death in 399 before our era for blasphemy and “corruption of youth”. In his defense, Socrates called his fellow Athenians hypocrites and fools, which earned him a glass of hemlock. Socrates died as he lived: Instead of lamenting, he and his friends spent his final hours talking about how to live a life of virtue, even as the poison crept into his system.

This kind of end-of-life encounter definitely feels like good time to Mac, Ray and director Niegel Smith, who presents Socrates’ farewell as a house party crossed with a New Orleans funeral procession married to a Radical Faerie bacchanalia. Mac described The shot as a “Mystery”, one of those ancient arcane cult events that once revolved around characters who had been to the Underworld and back – Persephone, for example, or the musician Orpheus. Wearing a flowing lilac robe and flowers in his beard, Mac’s Socrates is such a “returned” figure, a half-dead, half-dead man with mystical knowledge to share.

Now, you never know exactly what that knowledge is. The shot is often hard to understand, insular, even impenetrable – when it’s not beautiful, enveloping and wild. His many songs about kindness sometimes feel like footnotes to a lost text, with deep cuts from Socrates’ Apology rushing by and a tangy digression about anarchists trying to bring people to wear black to Pride. (There is also a riff on “Who’s got the pain?” Cursed Yankees which changes the lyrics to “Who’s got the bit?” and is quite disconcerting.) Ontologically, it is slippery; his explanations are actually diversions and evasions, and if you don’t know why everyone is panicking about Aristophanes, you’ll have to go home and do your own homework. But no one stops in the middle of a Catholic service to walk you through the intricacies of the Passion; you just absorbed if you come to church enough. And the ceremonies often deliberately upset initiates, especially those unaware they are inducted. “Listen, listen! Does beauty bother you? the whole sings, waving to the front row, hoping they’ll get up and join them.

If you know anything about Socrates, you know it because his best student wrote it. Plato (Ryan Chittaphong) appears in The Hang, though here he’s a big old party jerk, trying to take notes on his cardboard stenographer’s machine, eager to record the details while completely missing the point. The idea, Mac’s Socrates keeps telling him, is the clinging itself – the being-together, the creation via the interaction that cannot be captured on the page:

We’re in for the screams

We are here for the quiet

We are here for the doubt

We are in riot

Oh oh oh oh oh oh we’re here for the shot.

While the others perform strange ceremonies, such as the anti-hierarchical burning of their false beards (“Okay, Boomer!” they sing, “Okay, White Man and ancient Greek!”), or the slapstick trial (Socrates does a version song pretending to be Noel Coward), or flirt (Wesley Garlington does a play for Socrates that is half flirty, half adoration), Plato tries to clarify the facts about who to blame. But the facts won’t get straight into this weirdest of all possible narratives, and he’s left puzzled. What songs and jokes and seductions medium? Nothing? All? The only message this Mystery delivers is that, as Socrates sings, “only the unknown knows”. Forget the lyrics and whether or not you’re a victim, the show says. Open yourself up to confusion, and you prepare yourself for the formless, unspeakable wonder behind the world.

As in many Mac plays, costume designer and set designer (and “clothing poet”) Machine Dazzle builds half of the show’s impact into the clothes, which are full of sly Greek mythology jokes. El Beh wears a skirt adorned with a Medusa’s head and a mushroom hat with a red cap; Trebien Pollard’s priest-satyr wears huge orange horns and an undulating Dionysian frieze. The Athenian procurator Meletus (Beh again) wears an entire Charon’s boat, with a small prow and a skeleton boatman, as a hat. Tufts of gauze in pots hang like chandeliers, shimmering white fabrics criss-cross overhead, the walls have been smothered with garlands and swathes of fabric. Any sense of the room as a rectangle above the floor is gone – the carpeted audience area and multiple band platforms have curved organic borders, and performers sit on round tufts in velvet or sink into decorated basket chairs. It’s a 70s swing basement crossed by a cave temple, a macrame Mithraeum.

You might think that in a room this mellowed the sounds would be muffled, but Ray and Cricket sound designer S. Myers do an amazing job of keeping the brass gleaming and the percussion high-definition. Their hard-earned balance also keeps the set’s lyrics understandable, at least as far as Mac’s complications allow. In fact, where The shot does not find its answers in the simple sense, it finds them in the sound. In what the show comes closest to a thesis, the chorus asks: “What do you mean by virtue? What do you mean by good?” And this time, at least, there are simple answers. a trumpet solo, Jessica Lurie leads a dazzling saxophone breakdown, Synead Cidney Nichols and Kat Edmonson deliver light and soaring scat tunes. All of these elements are ineffable yet deeply meaningful, which is why Plato (and the rest of us us busy note takers in the audience), finally put down our tools – one by one.

The shot is at the HERE Arts Center until February 20.