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A CurtainUp Review

We have a system that puts citizens in charge based on their names being drawn from an urn, and not their worthiness, and decisions made by voters not informed by learning or study, but because they've heard a blustery speech filled with keen rhetoric and silly promises.

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. — Socrates, a comment that's become common usage by people unaware who originated it.
Michael Stuhlbarg as Socrates(Photo: Joan Marcus)
No, I didn't mistakenly attribute that quote above to the title character of Tim Blake Nelson's play, instead of some opinionator at the New York Times or on CNN. And, if you think that familiar statement about wisdom is the ancient Greek philospher's best quote, you haven't yet been to Socrates at the Public Theater's Martinson Hall.

Justice,friendship, virtue,poetry,theater, death, democracy! Mr. Nelson takes us through Socrates' wide ranging philosophical dialogues about the meaning of life within the context of his lifetime (470 bc-399bc). That means we not only get to know more about this complicated man but meet his fellow Athenians. Naturally that includes not just his students and followers but the men who tried him for his irreverence towards their accepted Gods and corrupting his young followers. We also become privvy to how when Socrates stubbornly stuck to his beliefs, his accusers put him to death with hemlock poison.

Apparently Mr. Nelson wrote the play envisioning Michael Stuhlbarg, his friend and colleague since their Julliard days, as Socrates. Fortunately Stuhlbarg was available and does indeed give us a colorful, flesh and blood human being rather than the statue on the Playbill cover.

Undoubtedly if Nelson had written his script to be performed as a monologue this fine actor could morph into all the characters making up his world, as Denis O'Hare and Stephen Spinella did in the solo

An Iliad

in 2012. If it weren't for the bushy beard grown for this role, that could probably even include the philosopher's wife Xanthippe.

Even though this isn't a monolgue, Stuhlbarg has plenty of lines to deliver with Shakespearean flair. So do the other sixteen actors. If you check out the cast list in the production notes at the side of this review, you'll see that most of them play multiple roles, which greatly expands the dramatis personae. Given Socrates' inevitable death, this all adds up to a quite grand Greek tragedy.

To tie all the strands of Socrates' life story together, the playwright concocted a framing device involving a teen aged boy (Niall Cunningham) brought to Plato (Teagle F. Bougere) as a student. The boy is angry about the Athenians' treatment of Socrates and thus questions the validity and virtue of the Plato-Socratea relationship and the city's social order. Thus Plato and the Boy's own socratic dialogue is interspersed between Socrates' scenes with the various other characters.

This set-up makes perfect sense for several reasons. Plato himself was the philospher's student and follower, yet supported his trial. Unlike Socrates certainly did plenty of talking while alive but left no written texts behind. On the other hand, Plato was a playwright and it is mostly through his published works that Socrates' ideas have been passed down and influenced society to this day.

Excellent as the entire ensemble is,keeping up with who plays who and when can be a challenge unless you sit close to the stage. There are also several scenes where an actor speaks from a side aisle which not everyone can see. Furthermore, provocative and well worth thinking about as all these ideas are, it's a lot to take in. When Plato at one point explains Socrates to the boy: "Often he got so far ahead of us, he had to answer his own questions" so all these phiosophical interactions often get too far ahead of the audience, causing attention to stray for a bit of mental rest.

The Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David painting in the metropolitan Museum of Art
Stuhlbarg's attention must be paid performance and director Doug Hughes' assured, atmospheric staging keeps these brief lapses from full engagement to a minimum. Scenery and costume designers Scott Pask and Catherine Zuber contribute to the production's considerable visual pleasures. Pask's all black set without any realistic furnishings supports fluid scene to scene movements. The subtly muted colors of Catherine Zuber's costumes often make the group scene feel as if the actors had been pulled out of the frame of a painting. Socrates' final scene especially looks like a live replica of Jacques-Louis David's painting "The Death of Socrates" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

And speaking of that death scene, it's as close as you'll ever come to witnessing an execution. It's not exactly enjoyable to witness but I suppose the reason it's been so precisely detailed is to clear up anyone's belief that execution with natural poisons can ever be more benign than other methods. It's also the one scene to make the role of Socrates' wife a bit more necessary than it seems otherwise.

Clearly, democracy has had its would be usurpers through the centuries. And this play about the birth and first assault on it makes this an apt coproduction with the Onassis Festival (This year's festival is themed "Democrcy is Coming" with offerings that include Antigone staged as a comedy).

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Socrates by Tim Blake Nelson
Directed by Doug Hughes

Cast: Michael Stulberg as Socrates, Tom Nelis as Proxenus, Gorgias, and Aristophanes; Lee Wilkof as Megasthenes and the Archon; David Aaron Baker as Anytus; Teagle F. Bougere as Plato; Niall Cunningham as A Boy; Peter Jay Fernandez as Thrasymachus and Polus; Karl Green as Lamprocles and Aenesidemos; Miriam A. Hyman as Xanthippe; Robert Joy as Crito Caerephon, and Meletus; Alan Mendez as Andromachus and Aetios; Joe Tapper as Agathon and Meno; and ensemble members Ro Boddie and Daniel Reece.

Scenic Design Scott Pask
Costume Design Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design & Original Music Mark Bennett
Wig Design Tom Watson.Fight Director J. David Brimmer
Production Stage Manager Theresa Flanagan
Stage Manager Jared Oberholtzer
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including 1 intermission
Public Theater's Martinson Hall
From 4/02/19; opens 4/16/19; closing 5/15/19.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 4/12 press preview

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