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Plato the Secret Playwright

Date: Mar 14, 2014

Director Alec Duffy has a reputation for theatrical high jinks. In the last few years, he has staged a John Cassevetes film, created a choir piece out of No Exit, and even made a wild evening by blending Schubert, music history, and alcohol.

The zippy mayhem continues with Republic, a stage adaptation of Plato's seminal work that Duffy has created with his theatre company Hoi Polloi. Running through March 22 at JACK, the arts center in Clinton Hill where Duffy is also artistic director, the show unearths the theatricality in the parable of the caves and the ring of Gyges.

Plato's work is a series of dialogues, after all. Dave Malloy, a frequent Duffy collaborator, pointed that fact out a few years ago when the two were discussing the notion of using the Socratic question-and-answer method in a theatrical piece. "It's in all of Plato's work," Duffy says. "Socrates, who didn't write anything down, describes himself as a midwife of truth. He doesn't have any answers, just questions. So when someone makes a statement, he just probes into it so that within a few pages the group has a working definition of what 'courage' is, for example."

Duffy, however, was a newbie to these philosophical investigations and admits feeling nervous when picking up Republic for the first time. "I'm not really a thinker," he says with a chuckle. "I'm clumsy with thoughts, and I was worried I'd be lost because I don't read many philosophy books. But it was quite readable!"

As he developed the show, Duffy kept returning to a primary question: Why is it in our best interest to be good instead of bad?

"I was attracted to how they approach that question in this weird and wonderful, but also very flawed and problematic way," he says. "I thought it would make good stage fodder because it's in dialogue form and because the content is pretty remarkable."

The original text, however, is 300 pages. At first Duffy imagined doing a marathon 12-hour, site-specific piece. "I thought maybe we could move the audience for each of the 10 books," he recalls. But once he began rehearsing with his collaborators, the idea changed, mostly because of the source's unchanging tone. "And because it's not drama," Duffy says. "It was hard to sustain even my own interest."

Other artists have encountered this dilemma, including the downtown theatre company Target Margin, who reimagined Plato's Symposium as a play called The Dinner Party. For their part, Duffy and playwright Noah Mease decided to cut away anything that didn't directly relate to the good-bad question. (Mease used several different translations and has also written some original text.)

The result is "as close to dance theatre as I've gotten," Duffy says. "Despite it being very wordy, it's quite visual and abstract. It's a hypnotic 80 minute piece." And though Plato's Republic may have quite a few interlocutors, Duffy's spin has just three: Socrates, Glaucon, and Boy. "It's centered around the soul being in three parts: the rational, the spirited, and the feeling or desire," he says. "Kind of like Freud's ego, super ego, and id."

When asked how one makes philosophical ideas stageable, Duffy offers up a parable of his own. He describes working with a choreographer years ago who put movement to text that Duffy had written. "I couldn't follow the words when there was physical movement. But for the director it was the opposite," he says. "He could only follow the text when there was movement. That's the experiment with Republic. We tried a version where they sat around and talked, but it was extremely boring. So we've tried this other version." (The abstract choreography involves 12 LED light columns, which the actors move.)

"The ideas in Plato's Republic are pretty nicely simple," Duffy maintains. "Unlike other philosophy books, Republic assumes nothing. It's a text anyone can read." Or perhaps watch.


Eliza Bent is a journalist, playwright, and performer living in Brooklyn

Photo by Michael Zirkle