In stiletto heels and cascading lilac gown, with flowers for hair and blossoms in his beard, Socrates is dying rather leisurely, surrounded by acolytes.
How long will the hemlock take to kill him? Also, do we really need to know?
“Frankly,” the philosopher says in “The Hang,” Taylor Mac and Matt Ray’s new opera, which is really more of an exuberant jazz cabaret minus the patter, “there’s something uncourageous about engaging in a mystery when you have all the proper information.”
That, right there, is the kernel of Socratic wisdom to clutch to your heart like a mantra as you surrender to the glorious, glamorous muchness of the mystery that is “The Hang,” a show for which you will not have all the proper information — not in advance, not as you’re experiencing it, maybe not even afterward. Narrative neatness is not one of its attributes.
With Mac (who wrote the book and lyrics)as a benevolent Socrates, thinking on virtue and sharing the spotlight with the rest of the large cast and an eight-piece band led by Ray (who wrote the music), this show is willfully amoebic in form: an act of resistance to structure from the team who created Mac’s ultra-structured masterpiece, “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.” It is also very, very downtown, and movingly so if that is the kind of theater that feeds you: an intimate space, an enormous amount of talent, a pile-on of eye-popping design, all in service of a work of art that wants nothing to do with the mainstream.
After two years of a pandemic that is still making in-person performance a precarious undertaking, “The Hang” feels like a celebration of theater itself — a paean to collaboration and company, to rampant beauty and to the necessary balm of gathering together.
Directed by Niegel Smith at Here Arts Center, it is not an immersive production; there is no audience participation, and the cast members keep their distance. Yet simply to enter the performance space, where the curtained walls curve around us and our cushioned chairs are hand-painted in myriad different patterns, is to feel immersed — and, as soon as the music begins, embraced as well. The sound of a live band wraps around you in a way that music simply doesn’t unless you’re in the same room as the musicians.
“The Hang” — which could hardly be more different from Tim Blake Nelson’s argument-fueled play “Socrates,” seen at the Public Theater in 2019 — does sketch the details of Socrates’ death sentence after his conviction on charges of corrupting youth and refusing to worship the state-sanctioned gods. But this isn’t a bio-drama. It’s a ritual of splendor and an exaltation of queerness.
So when Mac’s Socrates tells the story of his trial in the song “The Best Little Court Day in Years,” he sings it in the style of Noël Coward, all arch comedy (sample rhyme: “gayer than Spartans or pantyless tartans”) until it subsides into the ache that’s in the soul of this show.
To “The Hang,” Socrates’ corruption charge was about having sex with young men, not about teaching them radical ideas. It champions him because of that, and because in his refusal to bow to orthodoxy, he insisted on being himself no matter the cost.
Individuality is the clarion call of this show, whose most joyous moments are about the virtues that various cast members bring to a performance that often does have the feel of a hang among friends — albeit friends of extraordinary artistry, like Kat Edmonson and Synead Cidney Nichols with their gorgeous scatting, and Wesley Garlington with the most flirtatious whistle solo you’ve ever heard.
We don’t learn the names of Socrates’ acolytes; there’s too much going on for that. But each is stunningly costumed by Mac’s longtime collaborator Machine Dazzle, who designed the set as well. Wearing a toadstool headdress and a skirt embellished with Medusas, El Beh has one of the most striking looks — though the orange ram’s horns on Trebien Pollard are quite something, too. The bold, bright makeup is by Anastasia Durasova. Also essential to the moods of festivity and mourning: Chanon Judson’s choreography and Kate McGee’s lighting.
At some point during “The Hang,” I realized my mind had drifted to another of Mac’s works, the Broadway comedy “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus,” in which Nathan Lane played Gary, a onetime clown in ancient Rome who wants to heal the evils of a violent world by turning its casualties into performers in an over-the-top spectacle.
As Mac sat on the edge of the stage in “The Hang,” watching other cast members do their thing, I caught myself imagining Gary perched nearby, watching, too, and having a blast. “The Hang” isn’t the kind of world changer that Gary dreams of, and it doesn’t try to be. But it is a pleasure.
“The Hang” is a show that speaks to the restlessness and longing of this moment, and offers comfort in sensuous pleasure. At a time of loneliness and anxiety, it extols and exemplifies one of theater’s greatest virtues — communion.
Through Feb. 20 at Here, Manhattan; here.org. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.