Saturday, May 4, 2019

226 (2018-2019): Review: SOCRATES (seen May 3, 2019)

“Acropolis Now”

Just in case you’re unable to snare a ticket to the new Broadway hit Hadestown, you can catch a glimpse of two of its central characters, Hades and Persephone, in a brief vignette that may wake you with a snap during Socrates. Tim Blake Nelson’s history play at the Public is an intelligent, well-acted, sometimes engrossing, sometimes sleep-inducing, three-hour talkathon about the eponymous fifth-century B.C. Greek thinker.
Michael Stuhlbarg, Austin Smith. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The scene shows the masked Hades, wearing an erect, rubbery, foot-long dildo, sodomizing the masked Persephone, her phony, naked breasts painted in gold. Its purpose is to demonstrate how Alcibiades (Austin Smith), the debauched Athenian general and statesman, who had studied under Socrates, was guilty of profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries, for which he eventually stood trial.
Teagle F. Bougere, Niall Cunningham, Dave Quay, Michael Stuhlbarg, Robert Joy. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Alcibiades is only one of the important Athenian citizens, like the wealthy Crito (Robert Joy) and the playwright Aristophanes (Tom Nelis), connected to Socrates (Michael Stuhlbarg) in this well-researched biodrama about the man’s intellectual pursuits and influence. That influence was transmitted down the ages, not by his own writings, since he distrusted this method of perpetuating his thoughts, but through the writings of another, ultimately equally famous philosopher, Plato (Teagle F. Bougere).
Company of Socrates. Photo: Joan Marcus.
It is, in fact, Plato, from whom we learn about Socrates. Nelson’s structure presents Plato teaching a bright, 15-year-old-boy (Niall Cunningham) about Socrates’ life and ideas as they’re enacted. Plato and the boy (presumably the young Aristotle) observe from the sidelines. Occasionally, the boy assumes the role of young Plato.
Miriam A. Hyman, Michael Stuhlbarg, and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
This structure allows Nelson (best known as an actor in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) to follow the scruffy, bearded Socrates around on his mission to learn as much as he can about everything by questioning what people actually know about what they think they know, which often is not that much. Regardless of the annoyance he stirs up, he has a band of followers who love watching his quick mind eviscerate his victims, almost as if it were a sport.

In scene after scene, he claims to know nothing himself, saying he’s not even a teacher, while, using what’s known as the elenchus method of argument and refutation to ask penetratingly skeptical questions about the meaning of things. These include form and color, virtue, rhetoric, leadership, death, justice, and wisdom, his Socratic method always based not on an “I know something you don’t” premise but on one that simply seeks answers to truths he, along with his listeners, discover in the process.

As we attend to Socrates’ comments and explanations, we often discover topically pertinent ideas, especially when it comes to questions of democracy and just governance in a world where tyrants often rule: it’s impossible, in one example, not to hear an echo of MAGA in one man’s boast that he would “rule to make Athens great.”
Robert Joy, Michael Stuhlbarg. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Just as the boy is introduced to Socrates, then, so are we, and we come to understand how valuable it would be to have such a gadfly buzzing at today’s leaders. His personal accomplishments as a warrior are described, we learn of his friendships and his habits, and we even meet his scolding wife, Xanthippe (Miriam A. Hyman), mother of his three sons, who introduces a bit of modern feminism in one of her speeches.

Socrates' questions skewer conventional attitudes, including those regarding religion, and his insistent questioning can easily get under the skin. Some prominent citizens determine that his beliefs—especially his atheism—and his reported predilection for young boys is corrupting Athenian society. This leads to his being tried for his behavior. Despite the outcry of his followers, he’s sentenced to die by poison (hemlock, of course, unnamed in the dialogue but noted in the stage directions).
Company of Socrates. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Socrates is a didactic drama, dramatizing situations we once read of in Plato, and reminding us of why Socrates was such an iconic figure. But that doesn’t mean it’s not also something of a theatrical slog, and that its drama is more in the moment to moment exploration of ideas than in the pursuit of a traditional dramatic arc.

Since Socrates’ “execution,” if you will, is one of history’s most famous, director Doug Hughes takes considerable pains to draw it out realistically, even giving it a Christ-like patina as the condemned martyr's friends and wife surround him. Having been given the option of fleeing but finding it repugnant, he takes a basin bath during whose drawn-out process he seems to clean his every pore, taking on the aura of ritual.
Alan Mendez, Ro Boddie, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jo Tapper. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Then comes a death scene so extended and minutely observed, with its heaving and tossing and retching and convulsions, that it will likely entice other actors to tackle the role. Few death scenes are as physically demanding (or require so much histrionic ham) as this one; Stuhlbarg nails it but it could have been halved and been just as effective. He even manages to keep his substantial tummy, facing skyward, still enough so as not to give away the game. Of course, the stiller it is, the more we look for signs of breathing. 
David Aaron Baker and company of Socrates. Photo: Joan Marcus.
I’ve seen Stuhlbarg in many films, like A Serious Man and Call Me By Your Name, and TV dramas, like “Boardwalk Empire,” but never on stage, although he’s done 10 shows at the Public, including the leads in Hamlet and Richard II. His performance as Socrates, in which he looks like a cross between Mandy Patinkin and Moses, couldn’t be better, with every word defined by his need to seek truth and reject anything short of it. He’s emotionally powerful but sarcastically comic, has a potent vocal instrument, and knows how to suit the word to the action, the action to the word.

His supporting company of 16, many playing two or three roles, is perfectly fine, with such authoritative thespians as Peter Jay Fernandez, Joe Tapper, Lee Wilkof, and David Aron Baker joining those already mentioned.
Michael Stuhlbarg. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Hughes stages the work on a rather dull, charcoal gray set by Scott Pask (inspired by David’s 1787 painting, “The Death of Socrates”), with platforms at the sides and a space in the rear wall that  opens like a dumbwaiter to reveal the few colorful vignettes for which the play allows. For no discernible reasons, though, some scenes require loud-voiced actors to stand at the rear of the theatre, shouting at the stage, forcing necks to swivel like Linda Blair’s to see them.

Interestingly, the set and auditorium walls are inscribed in ancient Greek with the words of Pericles’ fifth-century BC funeral oration; less interestingly, there’s no way you know this without examining or touching the auditorium walls yourself as you use the aisles, or read the handout provided by the staff. For the most part, the words are otherwise invisible without infrared vision.

Lighting designer Tyler Micoleau picks up the burden of dabbing this bland environment with life, doing an especially nice job for Hughes’s tableau arrangements during Socrates’ last moments. Catherine Zuber’s modest, mostly pale, earth-toned costumes, many of them nicely draped chitons, capture the essential look of classical Greece.

Theatre doesn’t often succeed in making interesting the kind of cerebral discourse present in Socrates. Accessible as it generally is, it can also seem never-ending, aimed more at the head than the heart; the effort to follow it becomes increasingly less compelling.

Nelson’s play isn’t far from the kind of old-fashioned play Maxwell Anderson used to write, with elevated dialogue spoken by once-famous people whose names we vaguely remember from our college days but whose experiences have a message for our own times.

Still, even with its valuable lesson reminding us of the dangers lurking in the delicate fabric of democracy, one might ask, does it really have to be so damned long?

Public Theater/Martinson Theater
425 Lafayette St., NYC
Through June 2