“The Hang” is terrific entertainment.
It is a jazz opera, performed by a wondrous nine-member ensemble and versatile eight-piece band, with an intensely sensual score by Matt Ray that ranges from consummate scat arias to breathtaking horn solos to rousing New Orleans funeral music to ethereal midnight blues.
It’s a pageant of dazzling drag couture (Let the photographs below speak for themselves!), designed by Machine Dazzlewith a seamless series of delightful Easter eggs hidden in plain sight.
It’s an exercise in excess, a celebration of queerness, a downtown party welcoming us all back to live in-person theater at HERE.
But “The Hang” is billed as the final hours in the life of Socrates, as imagined by the show’s instigator, lyricist, librettist and star, Taylor Mac, who was reportedly inspired to write it after reading Plato’s “Apology” for the first time. That’s an aspect of the show that’s harder to embrace.
“The Hang” shares some of the wonderful qualities that have been in the best of Mac’s work – the playfulness of “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” a once-in-a-lifetime marathon of astonishing breadth and ambition; the commitment to inclusion of the Off-Broadway play Hir, which used the conventions of dysfunctional family drama to spoof dysfunctional family drama…and also say something insightful about dysfunctional families.
But it also reflects what we’ll call the artistic confidence of a major talent who sees their role as instructing the audience, without apparently seeing any possibility of learning from the audience, nor any point in listening to them. This has manifested itself in several ways, such as an aggressive insistence on audience participation, as well as a less than heightened concern for audience comfort. The most reckless example of this for me personally was in Mac’s last in-person play in New York two years ago, “The Fre” at The Flea, which I attended when most other shows had already been shut down by the pandemic, an experience I recall with a shudder.
The audience two years later for “The Hang” at HERE Arts Center is required to wear face masks, and the performers keep their distance, relatively speaking. Rather, as in Gary A Sequel to Titus Andronicus (which marked Mac’s Broadway debut), this artistic confidence is manifested in “The Hang” by a focus on cleverness over clarity or coherence.
There is a presumption that you’ve read Plato’s Apology (it is a short read) and the Republic, or perhaps an indifference as to whether you know enough of the context to follow the allusions. (If you wanted something as conventional as a drama that explains Socrates’ philosophy, or makes clear that he was sentenced to death in 399 B.C.E. on the charges of impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens, you should have gone to Tim Blake Nelson’s “Socrates” at the Public Theater three years ago.) The closest we get to biodrama is the song “The Best Little Court Day in Years,” which is, confusingly, sung by Noel Coward (Mac as Socrates as Noel Coward, I think): The triumvirate that judged him “wore last year’s sad sandals/as if those weren’t the scandals” and “Oh yes it was clear/he was tried for his queer appetites and not what they said.”
That’s one of the clear lines. Much of the language in “The Hang” is the kind of verse that is best deciphered as words on a page, rather than lyrics in your ear.
In short, I wouldn’t go to “The Hang” expecting lucid drama or philosophical enlightenment — at least not about Socrates. But do expect to be entertained. And that, ultimately, is Mac’s philosophy.
At HERE Arts Center through March 6, 2022
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission
Book and lyrics: Taylor Mac
Composer and music director: Matt Ray
Directed by Niegel Smith
Choreographed by Chanon Judson
Scenic and costume design by Machine Dazzle
Scenic design supervisor: Jeremy Lydic
Lighting design by Kate McGee
Sound design by Cricket S. Myers
Makeup design by Anastasia Durasova
Dramaturg: Morgan Jenness
Performers: Kenneth Ard, El Beh, Ryan Chittaphong, Kat Edmonson, Queen Esther, Wesley Garlington, Trebien Pollard, Taylor Mac, Synead Cidney Nichols
Musicians: Jonathan Beshay, Greg Glassman, J. Walter Hawkes, Jessica Lurie, Joel E. Mateo, Lisa Parrott, Matt Ray, Gary Wang