Socrates actively engaged in his search for understanding — talking, talking and talking, and asking leading questions — serene as the time approaches for drinking the hemlock, the Athenian state’s means of executing the philosopher on grounds of believing in his own gods and corrupting the youth, is an iconic historical event.  Through the use of live actors speaking the words while manipulating small puppets, and with shadow puppetry on the background screen, The Republic, Or, My Dinner With Socrates seeks to draw for its interest on the tension between philosophizing and imminent death but unfortunately the production fails its material.  

For one thing, the play appears severely under-rehearsed.  The actors did not know their lines well, and had to improvise their way around several unplanned blocking mishaps.  They’re also not very skilled with puppets whose movements were approximate at best — there’s no trace of the virtuosity that one finds in other puppet productions and which can sometimes be breathtaking.

And what’s the purpose of the puppets anyhow since the actors are onstage, costumed, speaking the lines and visibly doing pretty much everything the puppets are supposed to be also doing?  Even the actors seemed confused about the puppets — sometimes an actor would use a prop as his or her own and then, remembering the puppet was supposed to be doing whatever was to be done, switched the prop down to the puppet hovering at ankle level.

Given the raw state of the performance, it’s hard to judge how successfully Plato’s dialogs have been extracted for the purposes of a play.  Socrates as we know him through Plato’s dialogs wasn’t talking about the ideal state in his last hours and while a claim can always be made for “poetic license,” events surrounding his death are well known to many so that to alter them raises a problem of believability.

The diffuse quality of the script is also seen in the inclusion of a dramatization of Plato’s famous “allegory of the cave,” which is not integrated with the play’s focus on the tension between “the ideal state” and “Athens executing its most famous philosopher.”  On the positive side, those who know Socrates only as a famous philosopher will find out that this venerated philosopher was anti-democratic and authoritarian.  The solo music, composed and played by Clifton Hyde, was evocative and a fine highlight.

Socrates “survived” even his execution in the sense that he went on to become, with Plato’s help, the most famous philosopher in Western history, and he’ll survive this, too.

The Republic, Or, My Dinner With Socrates plays at La MaMa’s First Floor Theatre through December 15th, 2013.

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