BWW Reviews: Woolly Mammoth's ARGUENDO Stumbles in its Attempt to Please the Court
"Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the court," is the opening every lawyer states before presenting oral arguments. When Arguendo at Woolly Mammoth Theatre keeps its focus on the oral arguments of Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc., the show is praiseworthy on many levels. But when Arguendo becomes distracted, it not only fails to please the court, it loses on appeal.
Arguendo is a theatrical retelling of the 1990 Supreme Court case Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc. by the Elevator Repair Service, an ensemble acting company based out of New York. In the case, the Court was asked whether nude dancing was protected under the First Amendment. More broadly, it questions whether a state's ban of nudity in public constitutes a violation of our First Amendment right to freedom of expression.
Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc. itself is where Arguendo pulls much of its humor, and who can blame the Elevator Repair Service for that? It's doubtful that anyone ever thought the words "pasties" and "g-string" would ever be uttered within the Supreme Court's walls. Much of Arguendo's text is taken verbatim from Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc. Additionally, aside from a brief introductory scene outside the court and epilogue, much of the play is a theatrical interpretation of Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc. oral arguments.
Watching the first 40 minutes of Arguendo reaffirms why the Elevator Repair Service has gained a reputation as a creative and innovative ensemble. It's easy to forget, but unlike the executive and legislative branches of government, the Supreme Court has none of its proceedings televised. In creating Arguendo the company had the difficult task of bringing the judiciary branch's proceedings alive.
When the justices and attorneys are in the proceedings, debating back and forth, that's where Arguendo is brilliant. Despite some cumbersome judicial terminology, the Elevator Repair Service is able to highlight and retain the spotlight on Arguendo's legal question. Furthermore, they mischievously allow the humor present in the case to play out.
Justice Antonin Scalia (Vin Knight), questions what the difference is between paying to see a nude stripper and paying to see nudity in an opera? Both are expressive and have been paid for by consenting adults, so what's the difference? Suddenly all thoughts of strippers, nudity and adult bookstores fade as we're left to contemplate our own thoughts on the case.
Arguendo also draws much of its humor from the nuances of the justices themselves. Since the public never sees the court in session, we have very little information about the conduct of the justices. So when the audiences see them fidgeting in their chairs, sitting with poor posture, chatting throughout the hearing and other idiosyncrasies it gets a laugh because it's surprising.
Director John Collins' staging perfectly captures the intricacies and legal maneuvering of oral arguments. Combinations of three actors portray the nine justices (Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol and Ben Williams). Despite never once rising of out their seats, they are able to exert influence, focus and intimidate the lawyers by swiveling their chairs across the stage - turning oral arguments into a rapid dance of sorts.
As the nine justices, the ensemble does not try to imitate or perform cheap characterizations. Instead, the actors create strong performances which allow the audience to form their own conclusion about who were these eight men and one woman that heard this case. It's only in the show's epilogue that we get our first real impersonation of a justice. If there ever is a Ruth Bader Ginsburg musical, biopic, play or ballet, Susie Sokol would have my vote to play the title character!
Ben Williams and Mike Iveson do a terrific job playing the litigants' attorneys. Collins has them giving oral arguments on podiums with wheels. It's amazing to watch them keep their focus as they give their arguments before the justices who, at times, enjoy seeing the attorneys' squirm.
It's here though where Arguendo stumbles in its proceedings as the show veers from insightful and clever into a patchwork of sophomoric expression. Midway thru oral arguments two justices begin stroking each other's face for no apparent reason. The moment gets a quizzical laugh, but the whole exchange was puzzling. Nudity, while at the heart of the case and show, is erroneously used to mark time during some of the duller moments of oral arguments. A more direct approach by Collins, rather then the interpretive dance given, would have made for a compelling moment.
Ben Rubin's video projection designs bring alive the legal precedent behind the case. Displayed against the backwall, the rapid video movement is distracting at-times but helps the audience understand the laws surrounding Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc. and those that will influence its outcome. Collins smartly uses this to showcase how each justice uses these facts, and court opinions, to assert their position.
One final note, theatergoers would be ill-advised to prematurely leave the theater during the curtain call. Woolly Mammoth will be featuring a post-show discussion every night following Arguendo with representatives of the artistic, legal and journalistic communities moderating the discussion.
Regardless of its shortcomings, Elevator Repair Service's Arguendo at Woolly Mammoth Theatre is an impressive creative achievement. Anyone who doubts this is challenged to listen to Supreme Court oral arguments. There's a reason you skip over them on C-SPAN radio. And yet, while filled with moments of artistic genius, Arguendo stumbles in its attempt to balance wit, reasoning and a civics lesson with the oddities involved in arguing before the Court.
Arguendo runs thru April 27th at Woolly Mammoth Theatre 641 D St NW, Washington, DC 20004. For tickets please call: (202) 393-3939 or visit them online.