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Off Broadway

He Says: The Public’s Socrates Speechifies with Challenged Splendor

He Says: The Public’s Socrates Speechifies with Challenged Splendor

Written with wit and wiseness by the wildly talented Tim Blake Nelson (Eye of God, The Grey Zone), the Public Theater’s production of Socrates has a number of things on its mind.  It’s the perfect centerpiece for the Onassis Festival at the Public, as the program is focused around democracy, and who is better to start a debate than Socrates. This play is about democracy with vengeance, one says, where the mob rules, paralleling the complicated place we find ourselves in this very day. This Athenian time is tyranny disguised as democracy, where the approximation of truth is clearly something else, like a shadow thrown against the wall. When a man is sentenced to death for questioning the very institution he’s responding to. Truth appears to be one thing, but distortion has created another.  That is true of our current political situation, and it’s definitely what Socrates, the heroic intelligence that embodies the center of this passionate affair, is out to understand and pick apart, for the good of all humanity, and to the annoyance of many on the streets of Athens.

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Michael Stuhlbarg (far right) and the company of Socrates. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

As directed with clarity and strong articulate vision by the talented Doug Hughes (Broadway’s JunkThe Father)Socrates, played with weight and wit by the phenomenal Michael Stuhlbarg (Broadway’s The Pillow Man) does his work with the wiseness of words, circling around his audience with speeches that perplex and embarrass the powerful, while annoying the working man.  We are lead into this journey by Plato, played with strength and solidness by Teagle F. Bougere (Vineyard Theatre’s Beast in the Jungle) as he instructs a boy (Niall Cunningham) about the ugly and beautiful streets of the city explaining how Socrates, the great philosopher, questioning the very institution he embraced, democracy, found death within his hemlock’d folly.  It’s a tragic tale told with thought and study, wrapped in an easy edge by his disciple, Plato. Socrates didn’t leave any writings behind, hating that his words would be misconstrued, but thankful for us, Plato did that dastardly deed, and then Nelson, and together they gave us a Socrates to remember.

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Robert Joy, Michael Stuhlbarg, and the company in Socrates. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

The greatest thinker of his time, killed by those who called him a traitor. “Why did they do that?“, the young boy asks his teacher, the wise Plato. And what unfolds before us, through reverence and weighted glee to the tune of nearly three hours, is a strongly written and endearingly pure piece of theatre with a lightness of touch and a swagger in his bare-footed stance. To understand Socrates in his essence is to consider how Plato, within his writings of the man, presents him as a teacher, even while Socrates discarded that title with every possible breath. When Alcibiades, played muscularly and passionately by the engaging Austin Smith (Broadway’s Hamilton) captivates us all by giving something of a pre-death eulogy (little did he know at the time…), we see Socrates as the honored learned man of his time. The handsome Athenian general chronicles with a never ending charm how he tried his best to seduce Socrates time and time again, utilizing his impressive physique as something akin to payment for learning. The attempted ‘corruption’ failed, as history does show, as Socrates’ interests in Alcibiades proved to be entirely of the soul rather than the body, but the relationship between the two, as deemed by Plato, is seen as something important. The soldier’s name appears more frequently in Plato’s recordings of dialogues more than any other, and it’s no wonder, as that opening cements the tone and obsessional stance of this Socrates. The scenario is rich and dripping in clever twists and turns, exemplifying all that is good and strong in Nelson’s Athens.

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Michael Stuhlbarg and Austin Smith. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

The man is decidedly difficult, to say it lightly, reminding me of all those ‘know-it-all’ characters that I try to avoid at a cocktail party.  They live to question, and debate, while never claiming to be wise. Socrates is of that sort. A complete pain to be around sometimes, even within this play, but also someone to respect, as Nelson would have it. This Socrates lives in a more intellectual place of scrutiny, attacking an issue with “just a few questions” in order to find the flaw in thinking. He does that with the powerful politician, the esteemed artist, and the hard working craftsmen. Much to their dislike. His wife, Xanthippe, dynamically portrayed by Miriam A. Hyman (Public’s Richard III), knows it all too well, this tendency within his interactions: “I know you won’t extol my virtues as a husband and father,” Socrates states, “given the berating that goes on under my roof on a daily basis.” “A daily basis?” she wickedly replies with surprise, “You’re home every day??” Touché.

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Miriam A. Hyman, Michael Stuhlbarg, and the company in Socrates. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

The production is filled to the brim with a cast of pros; David Aaron Baker, Ro Boddie, Peter Jay Fernandez, Karl Green, , Robert Joy, Alan Mendez, Tom Nelis, Dave Quay, Daniel Reece, Joe Tapper, and Lee Wilkof, fill out the space with clarity and purpose, embodying the Athenians of all status levels by wondrously reacting and receiving with authority and subservience.  But it is in the Socrates discipline, that the man finds himself charged as a traitor, and in the complicated position of being judged by a jury randomly picked from the masses. “More wished him dead then found him guilty“, a shockingly wise condemning of the man and the system, of counterintuitive crimes against the democratic state.  Uncomfortably perfect, through the epic work of scenic Scott Pask (Broadway’s Mean Girls), with solid obvious costuming by Catherine Zuber (Broadway’s My Fair Lady), strong lighting by Tyler Micoleau (Public’s Miss You Like Hell), and a clear sound design and original music by Mark Bennett (Public’s The Low Road), we, the audience, somehow find ourselves to be part of the jury. Being addressed to as if it is up to us to decide Socrates’ fate. Within that construct, the direct attention given by Socrates during his trial enlivens the piece that sometimes gets weighed down by lengthy challenges to all the levels of democracy. It’s the fire that is needed to pull us to the end, and a welcomed one at that, as the edge that held us glued to our seats was starting to shift to discomfort rather than enlightened excitement. Thankful, Stuhlbarg’s thoughtful embodiment of the philosopher and the dynamic staging pulls us back in, dragging us from passive observer to active participant and member of the democratic jury. It’s a wise shift, and one that makes this Socrates alive and engaging, even when he is maddeningly annoying in his process of questioning. We could all use a bit of that now.

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Michael Stuhlbarg (middle) and the company of Socrates written by Tim Blake Nelson and directed by Doug Hughes, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

For more, go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Off Broadway
@#frontmezzjunkies

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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