Seeking theater that deeply explores an idea? The Greeks on the idea and ideal of love, for example? "Plato's Symposium" at the Powerhouse in Santa Monica is audacious because of a radical premise and compelling because of its smart production strategies.
Here is verbally vigorous theater, both lofty and delicious stuff by the collaborator/performers of the multimedia Modern Artists Company. They do not think small.
What they have done is to contemporize and animate Plato's "Symposium" (4th Century BC). That work, or dialogue, describes a banquet whose guests personified an ancient Greek 'A' party list, including Socrates, Aristophanes and others who took turns discoursing in praise of love.
The stage production cleverly mixes past and present, keeping intact the historical figures and their essential thoughts and images of love while modernizing the dress, setting and vernacular.
As in Plato, a party is under way in the home of the tragic poet Agathon. A sly index to the humor is the rather comical setting that blends "La Dolce Vita" decadence and austere Grecian marble. Some of the guests wear formal evening clothes. A few harmonies are knocked out on a grand piano. Drinks are passed around.
These men are comfortable together, intellectual peers. They are gay or bisexual, and as the evening wears on the atmosphere is vaguely redolent of homo-erotic banter and tension. The last dialogue on love is not about Beauty and Truth but delivered by the blond, young, wiry politician Alcibiades, who bursts in drunk and unravels a story of his once-fawning sexual relationship with Socrates, who now blanches a bit.
The evening flags into dawn, the heavy thinkers passed out on sofas, and fades out on an image of the still-talkative Socrates huddled downstage talking about the nature of drama with Aristophanes.
The production is a curiously mesmerizing mood piece, with scratches of a Greek parlor room comedy. The acting is almost uniformly strong and full of character definition, particularly John Fleck's often hilariously and marvelously starched Greek actor Pausanius and Tony Abatemarco's remarkably ingratiating and lucid deliniation of Socrates (much of what we know about Socrates derives from Plato for Socrates himself wrote nothing).
The development of the production itself was a symposium. Conceived by director David Schweizer, musician/composer/actor Jerry Frankel and performance artist Philip Littell, the drama represents conceptual input from the seven major actors, who individually adapted their own speeches from Plato's dialogue.
Transitions and introductions are conveniently framed by a young lover of philosophy in the present time who is narrating the progress of the story to his girlfriend (and the audience). That youth's name, Apollodorus, was also the name of Plato's narrator.
Despite the production's vividness, an alluring unreality hovers over the events, perhaps because we don't hear extended discussions of ideas anymore, seldom in the theater and certainly never at parties. The play closes Sunday but merits renewed life elsewhere.
Performances at 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica, are tonight through Sunday, 8 p.m., with a Saturday matinee at 2:30 p.m. (213) 392-6529.