April 28, 2019
Suspicious of the written word, Socrates engaged in a constant verbal interaction based on questioning assumptions—actually, questioning anything and everything. Now the Public Theater with support from the Onassis Foundation, presents Tim Blake Nelson’s Socrates directed by Doug Hughes.
Set in ancient Greece circa 399BC, this is the last day Socrates walks the Agora. In this fictional version based on the information relayed by primary-source accounts in the “Apology of Socrates” by Plato, a young man (David Aaron Baker) asks an elder to retell the legend surrounding Socrates’ death.
Soon, the slightly grimy, taciturn Socrates (a convincing Michael Stuhlbarg) paces back and forth under a bright, Athenian sun designed by Tyler Micoleau.
Belligerent in his demeanor, Socrates refuses suggestions that he alone has the power to save his life. After incessantly antagonizing the Athenian polis with his ideas, 500 male citizens (chosen by lot), accuse him of “corrupting youth” and “impiety“.
Dressed in Grecian robes, and sandals fashioned by Catherine Zuber, Socrates—surrounded by his Greek chorus of disciples -- ambles through stone walkways, boulders and benches by set designer Scott Pask. Unruly and unkempt, Socrates bats away offers of help from friends who hold wealth or high government positions.
Frequently popping off the stage, Socrates confronts the 500 citizens (in the form of the audience) insisting on the rigorous questioning of anything -- even the nature of color. Constantly sparring with his colleagues on any number of life and death issues, Socrates, an old man of about 80, insists that the polis has spoken, and he will not apologize for his actions. Instead, Socrates will swallow the poison and die.
The famous thinker cared not for worldly goods or apparently his wife, children or friends. Socrates only believed in the search for the truth, for the golden mean of human knowledge. When his wife, Xanthippe (Miriam H. Hyman) brings the two boys to see him, Socrates sends them away refusing sentimental women’s tears. If she’s to be believed, Socrates, who doesn’t bathe or care for his garments, neglects his family while plunging them into debt. Xanthippe alone manages the house and understandably despairs when Socrates refuses money from his many students.
Interestingly, politicians and wealthy landowners surround this man of pure ideals, as well as other scholars and students. Yet, he accepts no favors coveting only the mind. In the end, surrounded by grieving friends who pledge to care for his family, Socrates insists they stop their women’s’ tears. Before the poison circulates through his body, Socrates and Plato ((Teagle F. Bougere) engage in a profound exchange about the nature of the soul.
Despite an uneven cast, Hughes animates the philosophical language dramatically capturing an elusive man who helped set the foundation of Western philosophy.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis