New York Magazine September 26, 2013

ArguendoPress

Theater Reviews: Arguendo

by Scott Brown

 

There’s no shortage of earthshattering moments in American jurisprudence—you know, the Roes, the Browns, all that intrinsically dramatic Inherit the Windstuff. And then there’s Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc., the 1991 Supreme Court case that grappled with an enduring constitutional quandary: Does all-nude dancing constitute free speech? (And, in a related question, do pasties and G-strings muzzle free expression?) The harrumphing transcript of this idiosyncratic but not inconsiderable episode in SCOTUS history (spawned from a case originally brought by an adult bookstore and a strip club against the state of Indiana) serves as most of the script for Arguendo, the latest from brilliant brats of Elevator Repair Service (Gatz). In 80 dizzy minutes of towering, tottering legalese, hilariously atrocious wigs and highly athletic swivel-chair-ballet, five performer-creators (Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol and Ben Williams) do the seemingly impossible: They make the Rehnquist Court feel as intellectually rigorous as The Muppet Show. (And I mean that flatteringly, with respect to The Muppet Show.) 

ERS unpacks a text the way Buster Keaton unpacks a suitcase: Expect an evening of meticulous mayhem. Guided by conceiver-director John Collins and aided by the endlessly creative video projections of Ben Rubin (who fashions an epic comic landscape out of a black-and-white court transcript), the ensemble teases out the muffled passions and inarticulable absurdities throbbing beneath the intellectual chessmatch of Barnes—is this an obscenity case? Is dance really “expression”? “Why do they call this place a ‘bookstore’?”—and crystallize the justices as characters without resorting to direct caricature. (Well, okay: You can’t help but caricature Scalia. In fact, I’d petition ERS for a Frasier-style spinoff called Scalia.) The black-robed sages literally circle Indiana Attorney General Uhl (played by Williams and Knight) and respondent attorney Ennis (Iveson), swooping down like vultures one minute, creeping up like Skeksis the next, depending on the line of attack. Impressive passadoes of logic are superimposed on the fundamental silliness of what the law leaves almost unsaid and unsayable: that the state, and several people in it, will happily accept a lap dance from a woman in a G-string, but balk at the same hindquarters when they’re fully uncovered. The whole nature of expression is called into question in the uninhibited finale, where briefs of all sorts go flying—and then questioned again in a somewhat gnomic epilogue, starring Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (She wasn’t on the court when it decided Barnes.) The show’s ultimate thrust is a bit of a feint, but the legal term “arguendo” translates colloquially to “for the sake of argument,” not “to conclude definitively and forcefully.” There are delicate netherparts on display here; to bring a gavel down would endanger them needlessly. And as a friend of mine used to say, “to reach a conclusion is to limit the potential of argument.” Arguendo is a grower, not a show-er. Expose yourself to it.

 

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