Tuesday, September 24, 2013

102. Review of ARGUENDO (September 22, 2013)



Something there is that loves a courtroom drama. Good ones can hold an audience’s interest for years, even when the outcome is known. And millions tune in regularly to televised court cases when they cover sensationalistic crimes, as with those of O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony, to cite two of the many. But, for the sake of argument (which is what "arguendo" means), are general audiences as willing to watch a courtroom drama that has no criminals, but is instead a debate about the intricacies of a particular law? Will they be enthralled by a case about freedom of speech brought before the Supreme Court, where there is no criminal involved, but just the petitioner and the respondent presenting their positions and answering the questions of the justices? Will they stay focused when many of the questions and most of the answers are couched in dense, rapidly spoken legalese, with frequent citation of precedents? Will it avoid being boring? Perhaps, if the case is juicy enough and the issues of great concern; then again, it might not.

From left: Vin Knight, Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Susie Sokol, Ben Williams. Photo: Joan Marcus
            In ARGUENDO, the new 80-minute, intermissionless play being presented by the highly respected experimental theatre company called Elevator Repair Service (ERS), all the dialogue is taken from actual transcripts of a January 1991 Supreme Court hearing, down to the verbal stumbles and "um, um" hesitancies made by each speaker. Some additional verbatim material from interviews made by people involved in the case is also included, as are some final comments from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was not yet a Supreme Court Justice, but who is brought on at the end to offer some mildly humorous reflections on decorative aspects of the justices’ robes; this helps confirm the ho-hum satirical nature of what comes before.

:Mike Iveson, Ben Willians. Photo: Joan Marcus.
            The case itself is Barnes v. Glen Theatre. The petitioner, who doesn’t actually appear, is Michael Barnes, prosecuting attorney of St. Joseph County, Indiana. The respondent, who also is absent, is Glen Theatre Inc., et al., and the case is heard by the Rehnquist Court (1990-1991), consisting of Justices Rehnquist, O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, White, Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens. The case, which had been heard and appealed on several occasions before making it to the Supreme Court, concerned the attempt of the Glen Theatre and Kitty Kat Lounge of South Bend, Indiana, to stop enforcement of a statute that made it illegal for dancers to perform nude, without benefit of pasties and a G-string, on the grounds that the law was a violation of freedom of speech. The arguments that proceed examine the need to preserve freedom of artistic expression versus the need to protect the moral values of the citizenry and the protection of women from  rape and other forms of abuse. There is plenty of judicial meat here to chomp on for those so inclined, but to truly relish it you must first cut away some of the lawyerly fat and gristle. 

            I suspect that, without some mitigating theatrical elements, listening to the legal arguments being batted about by the advocates representing each side would be a deadly dull experience, although surely catnip for lawyers and others similarly dedicated to the intricacies of the justice system. ERS, under the direction of John Collins, has found a tolerably entertaining approach to staging this material; in it, both sides are equally represented while simultaneously underlining the all-too human fallibilities of the nine men and women comprising this court of last resort. In one wordless scene, for example, we’re told that we’re watching how the justices come to their decisions; what we see is the robed dignitaries earnestly playing Rock, Scissors, Paper. At the play's end, a recorded number from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, part of which pokes fun at the British legal system, brings things to a conclusion.

            Today, when you can see beautiful naked showgirls standing in Times Square alongside Elmo and Spiderman, their only concession to modesty being the painted designs on their bodies, the preoccupation of the law in the not too distant pre-Internet era with the need for nude dancers to wear pasties and g-strings in private clubs for adults seems remarkably quaint. Yet, despite the hairsplitting discussion in which some of the most commonsense queries are posited even by conservatives like Justice Scalia, and in which the petitioner's remarks, for all their legalistic acumen, show how silly they are, at least in retrospect, it’s astonishing to learn that the court split 5-4 in favor of allowing the law to stand because it was deemed not to violate the first amendment.

            Following a streetside TV interview with a stripper from Michigan named Rebecca Jackson (Maggie Hoffman), who flew all the way to Washington to hear the case, the play moves inside the court’s chambers, where a handful of actors in judicial robes and seated on rolling leather chairs play all the justices. They listen, first, to the arguments of the petitioner, in favor of retaining the law, presented by Mr. Ennis (Mike Iveson), and then to those of the respondent, presented by Mr. Uhl (first played by Ben Williams, but mainly by Vin Knight). None of the actors playing the justices play only one of them, and the same justices are played by multiple actors, so you don’t identify with any actor as a specific person, and have to wait for them to be  identified by name. Despite the faithfulness with which the transcript is treated, the actors keep subverting the seriousness of the occasion via comically heightened line readings, the way the justices sit or slump in their chairs, or the use of extensively choreographed sequences in which they roll into new configurations, or even slide on their chairs down the ramps at either side of the upstage platform on which they’re first seen. (The functional set is by David Zinn.) Late in the play, whatever seriousness might still accrue to the occasion is blown sky high in a Walpurgisnicht of satiric dancing (surely a comment on all the play's disputation trying to define dance), including Mr. Knight's stripping down to the altogether (except for his shoes and socks), as the entire legal system seems to be symbolically crumbling before our eyes. Despite his striking classic nude poses, this was not a thing of beauty to behold.

            Most notable of the show’s visual elements are Ben Rubin’s projections, the majority of which consist of white on black (as on microfilm) court records reflecting those cited in the arguments. They zoom in and out, whirl about, move from side to side (often timed to a justice’s swiping hand movements), and in other ways remain constantly active, never staying in place long enough for you to read them in close detail but giving you a clear enough idea of what they’re saying before they move on. The final image of the show has them drifting off into space as in the famous STAR WARS crawl.     

            This is the kind of production that will split viewers into opposing sides: the bored and the not bored. I would have to side with the bored, at least much of the time, not because I don’t believe ERS has pulled off an inventive theatrical stunt (it has), but because I found the actual substance of the arguments, while often fascinating and even sporadically--if unintentionally--funny, simply too dramatically inert. A hearing before the Supreme Court is essentially a combination of speeches and questions and answers, with a professional reliance on technical language and special manners of address. It is not the more everyday language you hear in a jury trial, for example, where all the legal content must be made comprehensible to a jury of laymen. And the drama never rises to the kind of crescendo we associate with witnesses being drilled by lawyers for the defense and prosecution. This is a largely intellectual exercise that stands or falls on how well it conveys its points via artistic means. Score one for the BORING side.

Although there are passages in ARGUENDO that are crystal clear and intriguing, a great deal requires close attention; however, the rapid pace and directorial monkeyshines eventually create a barrier that draws attention away from the ideas. This also happens with the dizzying, nonstop barrage of projected words being manipulated on the screen; they become more of a distraction than an enhancement. 

Based on what I've said here, I declare, for the sake of argument, i.e., arguendo, I was bored. Now it's your turn.