The New York Observer September 24, 2013

ArguendoPress

The Word’s the Thing

At the Public, ‘Arguendo’ makes legal language almost fun

by Jesse Oxfeld

 

Downtown troupe Elevator Repair Service is best known for its devotion to the written word—in 2010, it had a hit with Gatz, a staging of the full text of The Great Gatsby; the next year, it mounted The Select (The Sun Also Rises), a not-quite-complete retelling of the Hemingway novel. Now ERS is back, with a piece consisting largely of U.S. Supreme Court arguments, but this time it’s the inspired direction that far outshines the language. The legal jousting eventually becomes a bore, even in an 80-minute performance. But John Collins’s sharp, dynamic, consistently witty staging and the perfectly pitched deadpan performances from his ERS actors—Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol and Ben Williams—keep the play barreling ahead, even as the script flags.

Arguendo, which opened last night at the Public Theater, is about Barnes v. Glen Theatre, a landmark 1991 decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Indiana statute banning fully nude dancing. The ERS script is drawn from transcripts of oral arguments, from a courthouse-steps interview given by a Michigan exotic dancer who came to Washington to watch the proceedings, and from comments that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was not yet on the court when Barnes was decided, later made about the justices’ robes—their own costumes. Aside from the comedy inherent in debate about G-strings and pasties, the case is made more interesting by an Indiana Supreme Court ruling that specifically exempted various highbrow kinds of performance—opera, for example—from the ban, which puts the courts in the awkward position of declaring what is art and what isn’t.

Everyone and everything comes in for a certain kind of stylized mocking here—the reporters covering the case, the lawyers arguing it and certainly the justices hearing it and arguing among themselves. Three actors at a time play all nine justices; performers shift between the roles of judge and lawyer. (Once again, it’s all in the costumes.) There’s a moving podium, lots of text projected on the upstage wall and certainly the most intricate rolling-desk-chair choreography since the “April in Fairbanks” number in An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin. The show also has great fun with the question of what kinds of performance are sufficiently high-toned to earn First Amendment protection for their nudity—and, for one performer’s sake, let’s hope a funny-profound play on Lafayette Street makes the grade. (Not that it really matters: Even a Supremely upheld Indiana law has no bearing in New York.)

The case hung on the question of artistic expression and whether nude dancing, in Indiana, constitutes such expression in a way that G-string-and-pasties dancing does not. Here, at the Public, ERS’s artistry is impressive, self-evident and even a little bit titillating. It’s just that all that artistry doesn’t quite succeed in taking dull legal transcripts and turning them into something transformative.

 
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