In a recent episode of HBO’s “Constrain Your Enthusiasm,” the surviving Albert Brooks held a funeral for himself. Everyone gives due praise, and Brooks enjoys watching it all on his own on closed-circuit TV in his bedroom. And then someone accidentally opened the wrong closet door and discovered that Brooks was a COVID-19 hoarder.
Taylor Mac does better than Brooks, and doesn’t just throw herself a funeral. He takes center stage and plays himself as Socrates in “The Cave,” which opens Sunday at Off Broadway’s Center for the Arts Here. Aristophanes (Ryan Chittaphong), who attacked the sage in the comedy “Clouds”, is the bad guy here. Plato (again Chittaphong), not a fan of comedy or tragedy, recorded it all in an old manuscript, writing “Apologize”. And all the others were invited to “hang” when the lock was broken. The guests participating in this game range from apprentices like Cebes to candies like Skittles and the famous fashion accessory Paillette. Among those cheerleaders, Kat Edmonson emerged as Off-Off Broadway’s Teresa Stratas.
This wildly eerie new opera, with book and lyrics by Mac and music by Matt Ray, is an instant hit – with a nine-man cast who will be dressed in amazing Machine Dazzle costumes. The designer also used leftover tulle, sequins and crepe to create a gaudy outfit that resembles a womb.
The jazz piece, with its detours to blues and gospel, is always impressive and often fascinating with its textural beauty, not to mention its variety. Mac and Ray add a little Gilbert and Sullivan here, some lounges there and even a little Noel Coward. No, they don’t copy Coward songs. They brought him on stage to explain Socrates’ “crimes” regarding the young male Athenian. Spoiler: Mac can also play Coward.
Giving his shows a powerful narrative dynamic has never been a Mac signature. Instead, he loads up “The Hang” with more ideas than you’ll hear in an opera season at the Met. What is the essence of art? Is style more important than content? Does beauty have anything to do with morality? How are justice and virtue manipulated to end curiosity? Honestly, this last question confused me. But I was right at home with the follow-up question: Why did a bunch of dark-skinned gays wear black t-shirts and black jeans to protest the corporate takeover for the Gay Pride March? A radical nymph, Socrates makes it clear that he lived his life on a float with all the dancing semi-naked boys singing “Those are the rain men (Hallelujah)”.
Niegel Smith’s guide creates a fun atmosphere in which to conduct all philosophical debate. At the beginning of the argument, Mac glared at Socrates “Who am I?” innocence. Obviously he’s got himself some of the most gorgeous outfits too – and in this production, that says a lot. Unfortunately, one change of a long dress, to a long white dress, was not worth the wait and completely punctured the coat. “The Hang” offers a half-dozen endings after the lock should have done its job. Very good news: Continually, even when another song isn’t needed, Mac’s lyrics and Ray’s music are as captivating as ever. Only Socrates’ last lament is disappointment.
Criticizing Mac for slackness is like criticizing the Empire State Building is tall. Socrates’ long demise here recalls a jazz funeral in New Orleans complete with a marching brass band. You have to go back to the scene where Barbra Streisand sings “It’s Gonna Be a Great Day” in “Funny Lady” to find such an example of such spectacular, spectacular cultural appropriation.
Robert Hofler, TheWrap’s chief theater critic, has worked as an editor at Life, Us Weekly, and Variety. His books include “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson,” “Party Animals,” and “Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke It All” even taboos.” His latest book, “Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne,” is currently in paperback.
https://www.thewrap.com/the-hang-review-taylor-mac-socrates/ Taylor Mac’s Fun Bizarre Musical