Creating a play about a 2,400-year-old, 300-page philosophical text is no small feat.
But the Hoi Polloi theater company mostly rises to the occasion in its production of Plato’s “The Republic,” currently playing at Clinton Hill’s Jack theater. The rub is that you have to be interested in the subject matter before you walk in the door — the production has added traditional theatrical elements such as a setting and a narrative, but these additions may be too sparse for those unfamiliar with the subject material to engage with the play.
Writer Noah Mease and director Alec Duffy have successfully boiled the iconic text down to its fundamental components, stripping away sophistry and semantic quibbles in favor of the work’s essential questions — is it necessarily in our interest to be good people? How should we best educate our children? And what is the role of art in society? At the same time, the show broaches more esoteric subjects such classical political ideals and the Platonic notion of a three-part soul, while remaining mostly accessible to the average viewer.
The main challenge in producing a play based on a dialogue is staging the thing, and Hoi Polloi have created a compelling environment that facilitates action.
Jack itself mirrors the classical Greek “theater in the round,” where the audience surrounds the stage. Decorating the set are about a dozen columns arranged in a circle — evoking the Agora, a meeting place for political discussion in ancient Greece. As the actors deconstruct the ideal society, they deconstruct the stage itself, moving, rearranging, and interacting with the columns.
Another challenge is giving the audience a narrative to follow. The action in Plato’s text is mostly hypothetical, and there are few dramatic moments — so they had to be invented.
The play’s action takes place in two realms — the first is the Agora where Socrates (Lori E. Parquet) builds the ideal society along with fellow philosopher Glaucon (Jason Quarles) and a student (Jess Barbagallo), while the second realm imagines what that society might look like. This latter realm gives audiences a narrative arc with which to identify, while also presenting some of the counter-arguments Socrates faced in Plato’s text.
In one such scene, Socrates and Glaucon tiptoe over the set’s columns as they discuss whether it is right to perpetuate a lie for the good of society. The metaphor becomes palpable as they tread ever so lightly upon the very ideals — truth and virtue — that support society in an effort toward greater stability and harmony.
Like most Socratic dialogues, “Hoi Polloi’s Republic” offers no concrete answers, instead serving as a jumping-off point for post-show discussion. If you are into the classics, Hoi Polloi’s Republic is worth your time — but don’t make it your first introduction to Plato.
“Hoi Polloi’s Republic” at Jack (505 1/2 Waverly Ave. between Fulton Street and Atlantic Avenue in Clinton Hill, www.jackny.org). March 14–16 and 18–22 at 8 pm. $18.