Curtain Up September 25, 2013

Ben Williams, Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Susie Sokol, and Vin Knight. Photo by Joan Marcus



by Elyse Sommer


The theatrical menu in New York tends to be dominated by handsomely staged revivals and solo plays with minimal stage bells and whistles. But Elevator Repair Service (ERS) can always be counted on for something refreshingly original and staged with impressive theatricality. Arguendo, their latest offering, is no exception.

The piece now having its world premiere at the Public Theater is not only different from anything on offer either on and off Broadway, but also marks a departure from the famous novel based works that have raised the company’s profile and surrounded anything they do with a must-see buzz.

Well, not totally different. 

Arguendo is certainly different in terms of its source material, a 1991 Supreme Court case. It also calls for less of a time commitment than the six and a half hour Gatz (also staged at the Public Theater) and the shorter but still hefty The Select: The Sun Also Rises and The Sound and the Fury. Yet it is nevertheless completely of a piece with the company’s trademark methodology: A work collaboratively and painstakingly researched and developed to turn a verbatim rendition of a chosen source text into an original and provocative drama with often absurd and hilariously amusing twists. 

For me the literary based ERS productions not only were an intriguing reconnect with books read years ago, but engendered the bonus pleasure of actually re-reading them. I can’t claim a similar secondary pleasure for Arguendo, though the Barnes v. Glen Theatre First Amendment case that seeded it is available for downloading on line. Arguendo‘s source text, or for that matter any transcript of a legal appeal, simply isn’t the stuff of a gripping “good read.” Yet it certainly isn’t dry or boring as presented by John Collins (ERS founder and the show’s director) and his quintet of performers. They zip through multiple roles (reporters, judges, lawyers), deftly changing personas in full view of the audience. They use their rolling chairs to navigate their way around David Zinn’s sleek two level set with smartly choreographed movements. 

The verbatim staging is of a case brought by a South Bend, Indiana club operator to have the U.S. Supreme court reconsider whether forbidding go-go dancers from dancing naked, without “pasties and G-strings, violates their First Amendment rights. It’s prefaced by a lively prologue of an interview on the courthouse steps. A group of reporters interview Rebecca Jackson (Maggie Hoffman) a 23-year-old nude dancer who’s come from Saginaw, Michigan to attend the hearing since she feels a freedom denied in Indiana might well end up being denied in Michigan. Hoffman is a hoot but her her answers to the reporters’ questions actually make a case for the more serious and always worth contemplating issues of preventing rulings on situations like this from getting out of hand. 

As the courthouse steps scene shifts to the Supreme Court chambers the reporters seamlessly assume the personas of the judges and the first petitioning lawyer, while Maggie Hoffman’s sexy Go-Go dancer turns into a conservatively dressed Supreme Court Aide. There are only three chairs for the judges, but in another acting sleight of hand the actors manage to ably and amusingly morph into various members of the Rehnquist court, as well as the the petitioning lawyers. 

Of course, professional Supreme Court watchers like Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker or Nina Totenberg of NPR or Marcia Coyle of the National Law Review don’t need any theatrical high jinx to follow a hearing like this with unfaltering attention. For ordinary theater goers, no matter how titillating the chosen source is, some more dramatic stage business is needed. And that’s where Arguendo once again makes clear, there’s more than one way to read a text. 

Elevator Repair’s heightened performance style imbues every hrumph, cough, “err” and “aah” with dramatic impact and special meaning, as well as the company’s contagious sense of fun and the ridiculous. Having just a few actors play all the roles, and switch characters without ever leaving the audience in doubt as to who’s who, adds to the fun; for example, Sokol is a wonderfully prim and proper as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor as well as a more feisty Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Judge Scalia, who rarely gives liberal constituents much to laugh about, is hilarious with his insistent focus on the difference between nudity in a night club and more high brow settings. 

Even without the varied and expert performances, the titillating subject of the case under consideration and text of the justices’ deliberations are often quite funny. Adding enormously to the overall theatricality are Ben Rubin’s projections which intersperse the dialogue with text from the various cases cited sent swirling up and down an upstage screen. Don’t worry if the text rushes by too fast for you to read it. It’s simply part of the overall look and feel of the production. 

The more absurd aspects of having our most powerful group of legal experts spend hours and hours discussing whether nude dancing is to be treated as a crime or a first amendment abuse, culminates in an over the top finale. Which prompts a caveat: This is an adult show with parental guidance advised. 

ltimately, even at just eighty minutes, Arguendo somehow had spots that felt a too long and repetitive. Most likely this was a reaction to Mr. Collins and his talented and innovative team working too hard at avoidingd complaints about too much legal babble. That said, a big hand to them for not just sticking with more proven subjects and instead applying their intriguing methods to the vital issue of freedom of expression and an entertaining inside look at the workings of the Supreme Court. Maybe the company will next take on a transcript of a session of the current Congress which has given Americans little to laugh about.


Read the original article here.