Sunday, June 29, 2014
Arts & Ideas bonus review: 'Arguendo'
By Ellen Francis
According to the U.S. Supreme Court website, “the public may either download the audio files [of the Court’s oral arguments] or listen to the recordings on the Court’s Web site.”
There’s a reason that’s not America’s favorite pastime. With its abstruse technicalities,
judicial vocabulary, and references to precedents that nobody’s heard of, legalese
would seem a surefire method of putting an audience to sleep. But mix in the
words “G-strings” and “pasties,” some wizard-esque black robes, a couple of judges
wildly swiveling around in office chairs, and a dash of full-frontal nudity, and you’ve
got a formula that will turn heads.
This is precisely how Elevator Repair Service, an acclaimed theatre ensemble based out of New York City, has ingeniously brought court transcripts to life in its theatrical adaptation of a 1991 First Amendment case.
“Arguendo,” a Latin legal term meaning “for the sake of argument," is a staging of
Barnes v. Glen Theatre and The Kitty Kat Lounge, in which a group of exotic dancers andthe proprietors of two Indiana strip clubs protested a state law that outlawed publicnudity and mandated adult performers to wear pasties and G-strings. The attorneysargued that banning the strippers from performing completely nude is a violation
of their First Amendment right to free speech. The reenactment, directed by ERS
founder John Collins, is based almost word-for-word on the actual Supreme Court oral
arguments. “Arguendo” ran at Yale Repertory Theatre as part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven.
Five performers interchangeably play different members of the Supreme Court, the
lawyers, various reporters, court clerks, and onlookers, and one exotic dancer who
had come all the way from the Deja Vu Club in Michigan to listen to the arguments.
Throughout the course of 80 minutes, the rendition of the court transcripts is
sometimes intertwined with snippets of real interviews with some of these characters.
The production kicks off as Rebecca Jackson (Maggie Hoffman), a fame-seeking stripper
in a fuchsia 90s blazer and a big head of hair, chitchats with reporters outside the
courthouse. As the justices and lawyers wrestle with First Amendment arguments, the
formal solemnity of this Supreme Court situation is diffused through a unique type of
comedy that is constantly in-motion and very physical. The choreographed movements
of the justices whizzing around in their black leather chairs, the characters’ mannerisms,
the chaotic on-stage costume changes, the piles of paper _ and at times, clothes _
flying around in the air, all create the surreal hilarity with which “Arguendo” unfolds.
Only three actors, sometimes in absurd wigs, play all nine eccentric judges, as they go
about fidgeting, grunting, jumping up and down, and frantically swiveling, all the while,
ironically, never getting up from their chairs. Surprisingly, the justices’ words, repeated
verbatim from the real case, are also funny; while discussing the strip clubs’ freedom
of expression, they toss around satirical observations and make witty remarks, such
as Justice Scalia’s (Vin Knight) “How does one draw a line between Salome and the
Kitty Kat Lounge?” and Justice O’Connor’s (Susie Sokol) “Why do they call this place
a ‘bookstore’?” referring to one of the clubs.
The court proceedings take place against the backdrop of inventive video projections
with animated text, designed by Ben Rubin. Relevant terms and sentences from court
documents and previous cases whirl around, zoom in, zoom out, and do all kinds of
acrobatics as the justices and attorneys refer to them in their arguments.
For all its whimsical goofiness, “Arguendo” does not lose substance or depth. The
justices deliberate over concepts that trigger internal debates in the minds of audience
members, such as freedom of speech, censorship and the complexity of defining art.
With this production, Elevator Repair Service has managed to unearth and then master
the skill of finding both humor and meaning in the midst of obscure judicial terminology
and making it appeal to a wide audience. The arguments are compelling, the characters
have an intriguing sense of dry wit, and “Arguendo” definitely instigates fits of laughter. But at a deeper level, it also ponders big-picture questions, albeit prompted by a couple of dancing strippers: What is artistic expression? At what point does it stop communicating a particularized message and start exhibiting immoral conduct? Who is to determine this threshold, and how does this relate to our preconceived notions of
freedom of speech?
Ellen Francis is a student at Yale.