Plato’s “Symposium” begins with a confusion regarding time, as the narrator Apollodorus is asked about a drinking party—that’s the meaning of the word “symposium”—where Socrates and the great, but hugely flawed and handsome general Alcibiades talked about sexual desire, or Eros. Alcibiades had been in exile for a while and there was excitement that he was back in town to reignite his famous love for Socrates. But, as it turned out, the party occurred years before.
A similar confusion thwarted my own trip over to see a dramatic performance of “The Symposium” at Terrault Contemporary last week (it runs through Feb. 14). Jeffrey Gangwisch, the director, sent out at an email that the press preview was on Wednesday, Feb. 3. Of course, Wednesday was Feb. 4. He sent out a correction, but I missed it and the press preview. So on Sunday night, I doubled down on the parallels and went to the show, which served wine, despite being as horribly hungover as the characters in the dialogue. Like the horrible frat bastards who call themselves Greeks now, the real Greeks loved drinking games (ethnic Greek people, please sue the fraternity system to make its members stop slurring you by calling themselves “Greeks”), but because of their hangovers, they decided to give speeches instead.
At 8 o’clock Socrates (Stephanie Joyal, who also adapted the text and with whom I’d spoken the week before in the appropriately chthonic Club Charles) walked out in a black suit into the main gallery at Terrault, where a sold-out crowd was waiting, and began speaking with Aristodemus (Miriam Doyle), whom she invited. Then one of the “slaves,” wearing a toga, led us in to the side gallery, set up with a series of couches in a circle and chairs around it and explained they would bring wine, water, and food around (it is quite uncomfortable and weird to have “slaves” serving, but also appropriate to better understand what such a party would have been like and to remember ancient slavery wasn’t racial). Agathon, Aristophanes, the doctor Eryximachus (the excellent Ishai Barnoy), Phaedrus (Kitty Bermuda), and others were already seated and the audience sat among them. They began with a ceremonial chant to Dionysus that was great and beautiful.
Sophie Hinderberger, 2013’s Best Actress, was in the audience. Hinderberger acts in productions at Everyman, but she is one of the anchors of Acme Corporation, one of the city’s most experimental theaters, and as Craig Coletta, of Yellow Sign Theatre, poured me some wine in his slave outfit, I thought about how these small, intense, immersive performances are what Baltimore’s theater scene does best. Our big theaters are great and all, but it always feels like they’re trying to be New York or something, whereas it is hard to imagine a production like this happening in a gallery in a warehouse anywhere else in the world. And indeed, Gangwisch, who has had a residency at the Creative Alliance which is about to end, says that this production is his love letter to the “brilliant performance community” in Baltimore.
As I’ve written here before, I became a journalist because I felt it was the only way to truly live a Socratic life. Among my other great heroes is Aristophanes, the great comedian, who has the largest vocabulary of obscenity of any author in literary history. Still, I wondered why dramatize this work, full of long speeches and little action.
There were moments where the speeches were difficult to follow—Phaedrus and Agathon (Kat McKerrow) had particularly slow speeches that could be hard for modern ears to follow, which was not really the fault of the actors but the text itself—but the immersive experience made it not matter. For the most part, though, it was pretty spectacular, especially Aristophanes, whose speech is a myth that explains the origins of heterosexuality and homosexuality and sexual satisfaction (we were all once circle people, some man/man, some man/woman, some woman/woman, and the gods cut us in half and we’re always looking for our other half) which the slaves acted out, and Socrates, whose speech began with his questioning of Agathon and moves on to a story about how a foreign woman, Diotima, taught him about love. Ilona Wittenberg playing one of the slaves, takes over as the priestess and delivers Diotima’s speech. Wittenberg, who is 17 years old and new to the scene, does a spectacular job as the mystical teacher of Socrates and I hope to see her in more productions.
The “ladder of love” speech, which shows how we should go from loving one beautiful body to all beautiful bodies to the beauty in poetry to the beauty in laws and ultimately to loving the shining sea of beauty itself, was entrancing. Watching it, I realized how much I have perverted Plato’s Socrates. As much as I try to be Socrates, I actually take the opposite of the ladder of love, working toward the irreducibility of the individual person, who is unique and irreplaceable. When we reach the contemplation of the abstract idea, we are further removed from those around us and we are able to destroy them en masse to achieve our ideal (Stalin, Mao, Hitler all held ideas above people).
Which is why the Alcibiades part of the play was, perhaps, so disappointing. After Diotima’s speech, Alcibiades (Brian Naughton) drunkenly busts in. In Plato’s text, he gives a speech that champions the love of an individual, separating us again from the monstrousness of Beauty itself and returning us to a beautiful person, to the world. It is an antidote to the rest of the speeches, a necessary corrective. It could have been the most dramatic part of the performance. Instead, suddenly, they cut him off and a band (in this case Tongue and Cheek, in other performances the Barrage Band) take over and everyone starts dancing—which was a fitting end for an essentially comic performance.
There is a final line, at the very end of the dialogue, when only Socrates, Agathon, and Aristophanes are still awake. Socrates tells them that the great poet should be able to write tragedy and comedy together. Without the historical context, this performance leans toward the comic, but, as always, tragedy is lurking in the background. After all, Alcibiades as assassinated and Socrates executed and everyone in this play has been dead for more than 2,000 years. Someday, the same will be true for you and everyone you know.