Taylor Mac's 'Fever Dream': Exploring the philosophy of the hang

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Taylor Mac's 'Fever Dream': Exploring the philosophy of the hang
Rehearsals for “The Hang,” Taylor Mac’s new jazz opera that reimagines the final hours of Socrates, in New York, Jan. 16, 2022. The show takes the form of a gathering of “radical fairies,” who come together each year to mourn, and re-enact, the death of Socrates. Justin J Wee/The New York Times.

by Jennifer Schuessler

NEW YORK, NY.- What kind of a party do you throw when you’re about to die? It’s an especially morbid question these days. But in “The Hang,” a new opera from performer Taylor Mac, the answer involves equal parts philosophy and décor.

The show, written with composer Matt Ray, is about the death of Socrates, who, after being convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens and sentenced to death by hemlock, spent his final hours talking about virtue with his friends. And a few songs into a recent run-through of the production at the HERE Arts Center in downtown Manhattan, Mac — in a purple tulle robe and appropriately Socratic pandemic beard — started dragging out giant beanbag chairs while a bar took shape in the corner of the stage.

“Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh,” Mac sang, as the eight-piece band leaned into a groove, “I’m in it for the hang.”

That’s something of a credo for Mac, whose work, including the epic “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” celebrates community and connection through a radical queer lens. And “The Hang,” created with some of Mac’s longtime collaborators, puts those themes onstage again, in a phantasmagorical, hard-to-summarize mix.

The show, which runs 105 minutes without an intermission, takes the form of a gathering of “radical fairies,” who come together each year to mourn and reenact the death of Socrates. There’s plenty of wailing, but also queer romps, ancient Greek in-jokes, a comic monologue in the style of Noël Coward and a meditative number sung in a lavatory.

And yes, there’s talk of virtue — not in the sense of starchy purity (to say the least), but the Socratic sense of knowledge and ceaseless questioning, which for Mac is not just a matter of logical argument or even words.

“One angle I wanted to go with in this show was to say there’s more,” Mac said in a video interview. “The Socratic questions can also be expressed physically, aesthetically and sonically.”

“The Hang,” which begins previews Thursday and runs through Feb. 20, may seem like a riposte to the pandemic, which shut down not just theater but also, for a time, most nonvirtual hanging out. (The opera was originally set to have its premiere earlier this month at the Prototype Festival, which was canceled because of the omicron surge.)

But Mac said the idea began germinating several years ago as a “palate cleanser” after “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” a sprawling meditation on American history through 246 songs, which Mac performed as a 24-hour marathon in 2016 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.

The initial impulse was to make a solo theater piece based on Plato’s “Apology,” an account of the trial of Socrates, which Mac had recently read for the first time. “I wanted to do something simple,” Mac said. “And it was also so relevant to what’s been going on — the conversation about justice and virtue and how those things were being manipulated to end curiosity.”

But nothing with Mac, a self-described maximalist, stays simple or small. In late 2019, “The Hang” had turned into an ensemble piece, and he sent a preliminary script to Ray, who had arranged the songs in “A 24-Decade History.”

Ray, who has played jazz since he was a child, said his sonic entry point was a wailing saxophone, which became the sound of the poison, played in the show by a trio that sometimes roams the stage as if spreading it. “I just started hearing this sound in my head,” he said. As Mac kept emailing him lyrics (in no particular order), Ray composed what became the show’s 26 songs, drawing on New Orleans jazz, swing, soul jazz, touches of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane and other influences, though he hesitated to affix any firm labels. “I don’t like to write things that are an impression,” Ray said. “I just wrote the things I like to play.”

Mac describes the show as a kind of “fever-dream prayer,” an idea that’s literalized by the set, created by costume designer Machine Dazzle, another longtime collaborator. He’s the one who suggested that the action was actually set inside Socrates’ body, complete with a fabric-draped proscenium as the rib cage.

The vibe is wild and messy excess, though Dazzle said the pandemic had subtly affected his approach to costuming, and not just because the price of tulle had doubled.

“People are different from the way they were two years ago,” he said. “You can tell they’ve been thinking. They’re in their head more.”

Early in the 2020 pandemic lockdown, the core creative team started having virtual hangs twice a month to talk about the show (and what they missed about seeing each other in person). The first of three workshops organized by HERE was held last summer in a tent in a public park.

Niegel Smith, the director, said the casting was about “curating friendship” as well as artistry. The company of nine performers and eight musicians (who are choreographed into the show) are a mix of veterans of previous Mac projects and new collaborators, including jazz vocalists Kat Edmonson and Queen Esther and Broadway veteran Kenneth Ard (“Cats,” “Starlight Express,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”).

Ard had already left theater when the pandemic hit and was working as a corporate chef. He moved to San Francisco during the lockdown but came back to New York to audition at the recommendation of Dazzle, a friend.

“I was tired of the commercial theater thing, but I hadn’t experienced really artistic theater, as I feel this is,” he said in a video interview. “Matt Ray’s score just blew me away. I just thought, I have to sing these songs.”

Edmondson was recruited by Ray, with whom she has performed at Carnegie Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center and elsewhere. It’s her first stage role and, in the song “Virtue,” a chance for some serious scatting, something she has only recently added to her own live shows. “It’s kind of a new thing for me,” she said. “It’s so much fun.”

The physical demands of “The Hang” aren’t quite as extreme as those of Mac’s last play, “The Fre,” which put the actors — and the audience — in a giant ball pit. (The play, directed by Smith, was still in previews at the Flea when the pandemic hit.)

Still, at the recent rehearsal for “The Hang,” performer El Beh’s big skirt festooned with Medusa heads kept knocking over the urn where the cast members burn their mock-Socratic beards during “OK Boomer,” a riff on cultural ephemerality. And there was strategizing over the best way to flop onto a giant pouf during an extremely up-tempo philosophical dialogue called “The Ephemeral.”

Chanon Judson, the choreographer, described the movement, like so much of the show, as a collage. “I really like to scan the room and sponge in everyone’s idiosyncratic ways of being in the space,” she said.

In Plato’s “Apology,” the downfall of Socrates is blamed on Aristophanes, who in his play “The Clouds” had ridiculed Socrates as a charlatan, helping to turn public opinion against him. “The Hang” certainly gets its digs at Aristophanes. But in Mac’s retelling, if Socrates has a foil, it’s Plato himself, who lurks around the action, taking it all down on an ancient Greek stenograph.

Plato was famously critical of theatricality, condemning drama as a form of lying that manipulates the public, with sometimes dangerous consequences. It’s an idea “The Hang” turns inside out.

“I wanted to find out, can we be as theatrical as possible, can we bring the queer culture into it, and find a way to express a truth rather than a lie?” Mac said. “You can’t hide when you sing. You can try to, but you always end up telling some kind of truth about who you are.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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