by Steven Pisano
If you haven't been following the career of Taylor Mac, you've been missing out on one of the most protean theater artists of our time. Winner of a MacArthur Genius Grant, International Ibsen Award and Pulitzer Prize nomination, Mac achieved wide praise for 2016's tour-de-force “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” not in the least because it was 24 hours long (with short allowances for food, drink, and bathroom breaks). One could fill stadiums with the number of people still kicking themselves for missing that show!
Now, Mac has brought a new opera, “The Hang” to HERE, written with the composer Matt Ray and directed by Niegel Smith. Originally scheduled to be presented as part of the cancelled Prototype Festival of new opera, “The Hang” is not as ambitious in scale as some of Mac's previous work, clocking in at a mere 100 minutes. But, as a celebration of live musical theater in all its bristling, visceral glory—music, lyrics, sets, make-up, and costumes—this “jazz opera" will make you ecstatic to be back in the theater. It is a love letter to the act of creation itself, and to how essential it is that we all “hang” together.
“The Hang” recounts the persecution and ultimate death of the famous Greek philosopher Socrates. But don’t be misled. This is not a classics lesson brought to life (even if knowing something about Aristophanes will elicit snickers from those in the know). What will delight you is the sheer, queer exuberance of this outstanding production.
It is a testament to Mac’s democratic approach that some of the finest moments in the show are from his assembled troupe of performers. Fans of the excellent jazz vocalist Kat Edmonson will discover that she is totally captivating in her Ziegfeld-style feathered headdress, performing here in a stage production for the first time. When she and the slinky Synead Cidney Nichols show off their scatting prowess, there are smiles of appreciation even on the faces of the other performers. (There are also excellent solo and combo turns by El Beh, Wesley Garlington, Trebien Pollard, Ryan Chittaphong, Kenneth Ard, and Queen Esther.)
Mac, decked out in a lilac gown and flowery headdress, looked like a cross between a Haight-Ashbury hippie and someone’s (bearded) aunt in a hospital gown and shower cap. Mac is always at the core of the show, whether singing, being seduced, or watching from the side with love and pride as the others perform.
The New Orleans-styled music by Ray sets the tone from the very start of the show, which opens with music heard in the dark, mixing both celebration and elegy, as Socrates awaits his end and his acolytes revel in the lasting value of his teachings. The band gets to show off its chops throughout the evening with several interludes as the singers dance around the stage, as well as some enjoyable solos, including a centerpiece by baritone saxophonist Jessica Lurie and a funny trumpet solo by Greg Glassman.
Perhaps the “star” of the production, though, is not Taylor Mac, or even Mac's merry troupe of performers, but the set and costumes by the designer extraordinaire known as Machine Dazzle, who has worked with Mac for over a decade. (For more about Dazzle, see this Hilton Als profile in The New Yorker.) From the hand-painted chairs the audience sits on, to the design-painted floor, to the fabric ribs across the ceiling, to the groovy furniture, to the eye-popping "these belong in a museum’ costumes, your eyes will feast on the fruits of this designer’s fever dream imagination. Most of all, Machine Dazzle uses the costumes to tell part of the story, to comment on the characters.
As you might imagine, this shining production is sold out for the rest of its limited run (through March 6), but if you love live musical theater as much as Taylor Mac clearly does, you should still try to see if you can get a ticket somehow. You'll kick yourself if you don't!
More photos can be found here.