I can think of no Yale venue better suited for a stage adaptation of Plato’s dialogues than the Nick Chapel Theater, that cavernous yet intimate hole in the bowels of Trumbull College. As I descended into my seat on the opening night of Phaedo, written and directed by Leo Egger TC ’24, the space was abuzz with the same anticipation I remembered from Directed Studies lectures. My sense of slippage between the theatrical and real began even before the lights dimmed.
Phaedo reconstructs the last days of Socrates, condemned to death by the Athenian public for corrupting the youth. The play skillfully weaves several of Plato’s dialogues together, sometimes even quoting their translations verbatim. Egger’s conceit, like his staging, is so simple one could almost miss its revelations: the story is reenacted by three philosophy professors, named after the actors playing them (Brennan Columbia-Walsh TC ’26, Daliya Habib ES ’25, and Dominic Sullivan BF ’23), who drive the narrative by reiterating or correcting one another’s points and tussling for the part of Socrates (represented by a red cloth draped over the left shoulder). The choice to have fictional professors present the ancient narrative, rather than to present the narrative alone, both undermines and augments the stakes of the play within the play. While we aren’t asked to forget Socrates’s infamous fate or even believe that the professor playing him is doing a convincing job, we sense that for the relatively “real,” contemporary professors, getting the story right is a matter of acute personal significance. Monty Python-esque slapstick coexisted with some of the most sublime moments I’ve seen in Yale theater, such as when the professors tore the red fabric into three equal pieces and drifted across the stage.
I am a big proponent of barebones theater, especially in college, when large-budget productions are often doomed by their intricacy and self-seriousness. Phaedo’s spare execution not only skirted this pitfall, but blurred the boundary between actor and audience, which here included students of philosophy. Still, I sometimes found myself distracted by an actor gathering props while another scene was happening, and I struggled to hear several lines, even though I was less than five yards away. Unfussy, if uncontrolled, can veer into unpolished. On the other hand, the philosophy faculty I’ve known seem to have built their lives on straddling that fuzzy boundary, an ethos the actors internalized well. For me, the success of Phaedo lay in its severe—indeed, Socratic—unassumingness, which allowed for that particularly theatrical magic by which a cup of stale coffee can become a goblet of hemlock transcending time.