What would the Greek philosopher Plato have made of THE REPUBLIC, a stage adaptation that Hoi Polloi is presenting now at Manbites Dog Theater?
Plato wouldn't have simply panned it, he would have banished the lot of them from his ideal city-state. But director Alec Duffy and playwright Noah Mease shouldn't take such a verdict too personally. Even though he wrote The Republic as a series of dramatic dialogues, Plato would have banished all poets and theatricals from his perfect Kallipolis, because of the way they appeal to our base, unruly emotions.
This show has its origins in the Occupy movement, where the New York-based theater company observed the debates in Zuccotti Park. Duffy was reading The Republic as occupiers were considering how people could build a better city from scratch. The parallels between a 2,500-year-old text and the contemporary political moment led to residencies at Duke where he pursued the project.
Toward the start of this strange show, Plato's brother, Glaucon (Jason Quarles) asks the question straight up: "Why is it really in our better interests to be good people?" After a moment's hedging, it's something of a comic understatement when Socrates (Lori E. Parquet) replies, "Obviously I don't have a short answer." I'll say he doesn't; it will take most of the 10 books in The Republic to fully articulate a response.
During much of the play's run time, Socrates leads Glaucon and an unnamed boy (Jess Barbagallo) through an intricate series of thought experiments that seek to design a perfect city as a macrocosm for the individual, ostensibly to make the results easier to observe. Various parameters and traits are installed in a series of hypothetical city-states; they're thought through, and then either ratified or abandoned. (On stage, this process has been drastically reduced—an unabridged reading would have taken far longer than the show's 70-minute run time.)
Certainly designer Mimi Lien's minimal set and Yi Zhao's chilly lighting places us in a chamber appropriate for a thought experiment. The audience sits against the four walls of an intimate (but hardly cozy) gray cube, facing a common area bordered by 12 gray pylons.
An opening whose choreography among the pylons seems a cross between Shen Wei and Eiko and Koma, attempts to reset our mental clocks to a slower, more contemplative pace. But in the process, it also suggests the activity we're doing during the rest of Republic, threading nimbly across a series of mental pathways.
Oana Botez' costumes, which provide the only flash of color on this otherwise monochrome palette, reinforce an aesthetic that deliberately removes most details and variations from a world in order to focus our attention more acutely on what remains.
Such an ascetic approach to such challenging material will hardly appeal to devotees of more standard fare. Even in its depiction of two human relationships, both of which question the concept of love, this work all but exclusively appeals to the intellect.
While the trio of actors kept the audience fully engaged on opening night, directing choices distracted it at two crucial points. The first was a wrestling match that competes with the discourse on arts in the city occurring at the same time. And the pace in the final two sequences is more likely to fill viewers with ennui than wonder.
Still, Republic remains an interesting foray into the mind of one of Western civilization's great philosophers. At the end, we're struck by the resilience—and, in places, the fragility—of his findings.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Ancient forms."