"I've been trying to get people to read Plato for years," said Jerry Frankel, "and it's always been 'Oh, that's the kind of thing Jerry does. He likes to read Plato. Good for him.' But now they're going to come--because we're giving them a treat."
The "treat" is "Plato's Symposium" (opening Thursday, for two weekends at the Powerhouse), a modern staging of the classical text by conceivers/cast members Frankel, Philip Littell and David Schweizer (who also directs).
"The trick of the contemporariness of the work (a dinner party attended by nine philosophers of the 5th Century BC to ruminate on the subject of love) is that very little has changed," said Littell. "We've got equivalents in our own lives. So you don't have to strain at it. The elements of life, the social interaction are much the same."
"There are also parallels, politically, between what's going on now and what was going on in Greece," Frankel said. "The Golden Age was drawing to a close and Athens was engaged in the Peloponnesian War with Sparta, a distinctly militaristic, literally fascistic society; everybody had to be the same, war was the greatest art of life. Athens, considered the center of thought and discourse, was losing.
"And look what's going on in America now, where the intellectuals are being challenged, terms are being used like 'secular humanism.' We're facing the LaRouche initiative (advocating the quarantine of AIDS victims and carriers). This is serious."
Added Schweizer: "This is a very tricky moment in our culture. We are in the midst of an AIDS health crisis, which has precipitated on many levels a spiritual crisis in terms of relationships between people--particularly gay people, but traveling out into the population. We wanted to do something that might make a contribution, be potentially healing." (Financially, too, all performance proceeds will go to AIDS research.)
Littell finds the topics of sex and health in keeping with Plato's text:
"At one point, Jerry's character, the doctor, talks about aspects of love that are healthy and those that are unhealthy. And my character realizes that a lot of the running around for physical gratification is a stand-in for what he thinks love is. So it's very much on their minds: a group of men, many of them homosexual, who were concerned about the degree to which they'd be sexually active. These are things that have haunted us all, straight or gay, in the last 15 years."
Beyond the trio's desire to address social themes was the attraction of working with other local actors and performance artists: Tony Abatemarco, John Fleck, Steve Levitt, Jan Munroe, Daniel Shor, Ray Underwood. The result, Schweizer says, is a melding of personal and professional styles that fits well within the work.
"The theater I've done in L.A. ("The Weba Show" with Frankel and Littell, "Rocket" and "Notes: on Performance") has mostly been collaborative work--and these are all interesting, distinctive artists on their own. That (dynamic) works well here, because there isn't much dialogue. Basically, one of the guests makes a long speech, then the next one speaks. . . . So in a way, a variety of tone is inherent--and interesting to see."
Yet seeing, Frankel noted, will likely take a back seat to hearing: "We're not denying that we're using modern theatrical techniques (a slide show, his original musical score) to enhance the text. But it's great to work in a show that's really about words and thought."
Also gratifying has been the absence of one-upmanship: "It's about being grown-ups," said Littell. "We're all in our mid-30s. It's time to relax a little, trust that one's contribution is unassailable."