Taylor Mac writes maximalist, flamboyant and mythopoetic works, full of flights of verse, queer reference, drag excess, and allusion. They sometimes flourish 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 curl up like snails, so inward looking they disappear into a kind of audience-excluding shell.
For the most part, Mac’s The Hang is the peacocky 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 spirit. Whichever it is, it imagines the final moments of Socrates, sentenced to death in 399 B.C.E. for blasphemy and “corrupting the youth.” In his defense, Socrates zinged his fellow Athenians as hypocrites and fools, which got him a drink 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 through his system.
That sort of end-of-life get-together sounds like a definitively good time to Mac, Ray, and director Niegel Smith, who present Socrates’ farewell as a house party crossed with a New Orleans funeral procession married to a Radical Faerie bacchanal. Mac has described The Hang as a “Mystery,” one of those ancient arcane cultic events that once revolved around figures who had been to the Underworld and made it back — Persephone, for instance, or the musician Orpheus. Wearing a flowing lilac gown and flowers in his beard, Mac’s Socrates is just such a “returned” figure, a man half in and half out of death, who has mystical knowledge to share.
Now, it’s never clear exactly what that knowledge is. The Hang is often hard to understand, insular, even inscrutable — when it isn’t being beautiful, enveloping, and wild. Its many songs about goodness sometimes feel like footnotes to a lost text, with deep cuts from Socrates’ Apology whizzing past as well as a tart digression on anarchists trying to get people to wear black at Pride. (There’s also a riff on “Who’s got the pain?” from Damn Yankees that changes the lyric to “Who got the bit?” and is utterly baffling.) Ontologically, it’s slippery; its explanations are actually diversions and evasions, and if you don’t know why everyone is freaking out 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 fine points of the Passion; you just absorb them if you come to church enough. And ceremonies often deliberately discombobulate initiates, especially the ones who don’t know they’re being inducted. “Hear ye, hear ye! The beauty, will it queer ye?” the ensemble sings, beckoning to the front row, hoping they’ll get up and join in.
If you know anything about Socrates, you know it because his best student wrote it down. Plato (Ryan Chittaphong) does appear in The Hang, though here he’s a big old party pooper, trying to take notes on his cardboard stenographer’s machine, eager to record the particulars while utterly missing the point. The idea, Mac’s Socrates keeps telling him, is the hang itself — the being-together, the creation-via-interaction that cannot be captured on the page:
We’re in it for the shouting
We’re in it for the quiet
We’re in it for the doubting
We’re in for the riot
Oh oh oh oh oh oh we’re in it for the hang.
While the others do odd ceremonies, like anti-hierarchically burn their fake beards (“Okay, Boomer!” they sing, “Okay, White Man and ancient Greek!”), or burlesque the trial (Socrates does a song version pretending to be Noël Coward), or flirt (Wesley Garlington makes a play for Socrates that’s half seduction, half worship), Plato is trying to get the facts straight about who to blame. But the facts won’t get straight in this queerest of all possible tellings, and he’s left bewildered. What do songs and jokes and seductions mean? Nothing? Everything? The only message this Mystery delivers is that, as Socrates sings, “only the unknown knows.” Forget about the lyrics and whether or not you’re a victim, says the show. Open yourself to confusion, and you ready yourself for the unshapeable and unspeakable wonder behind the world.
As in many of Mac’s pieces, the costume and set designer (and “sartorial poet”) Machine Dazzle builds half the show’s impact into the clothes, which are full of sly jokes about Greek mythology. El Beh wears a skirt appliquéd with Medusa’s head and a chapeau of red-cap mushrooms; Trebien Pollard’s satyr-priest wears huge orange horns and an undulating Dionysian frieze. The Athenian prosecutor Meletus (Beh again) wears an entire Charon’s boat, complete with little prow and skeleton boatman, as a hat. Tufts of gauze in pots hang like chandeliers, glittering white cloth criss-crosses overhead, the walls have been muffled in swags and swathes of fabric. All sense of the room as an aboveground rectangle is gone — the carpeted audience area and the several band platforms have curving, organic borders, and performers sit on round velvet tuffets or sink into decorated basket chairs. It’s a swinging ’70s basement crossed with a cave temple, a macramé Mithraeum.
You might think that in such a softened room, sounds would be muffled, but Ray and sound designer Cricket S. Myers do an incredible job of keeping the brass bright and the percussion high-def. Their hard-won balance also keeps the ensemble’s lyrics comprehensible, at least as far as Mac’s complications will allow. In fact, where The Hang does not find its answers in mere sense, it finds them in sound. In the closest thing the show has 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 straightforward answers. In turn, the performers come forward to do the things they do best: Greg Glassman blisters us with a trumpet solo, Jessica Lurie conducts a dazzling saxophone breakdown, Synead Cidney Nichols and Kat Edmonson deliver weightless, soaring scat arias. All of these are ineffable but profoundly meaningful, which is why Plato (and the rest of us busy notetakers in the audience), eventually put down our tools — one by one by one.
The Hang is at HERE Arts Center through February 20.