Arguendo – Bringing the Supreme Court to Life

Just back from NYC where I saw 16 performances in 10 days, the entire Prototype Festival of new opera, co presented by HERE Art Center and Beth Morrison Projects, and large chunks of the Under the Radar festival at the Public Theater.

That’s a lot of theater. And much of it was fantastic. When asked which productions have left the most pronounced impression, I quickly respond with Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times, Parts 1-4, and Elevator Repair Service‘s Arguendo as a close second. Both works deal with a similar approach to text, taking natural speech and transforming it through a theatrical process.

Elevator Repair Service, best known for their monumental Gatz, which consists of a theatrical reading of the entire text of The Great Gatsby, turns to the Supreme Court. They take the literal transcriptions of the oral arguments of a 1991 case regarding the constitutionality of a state ban on nude dancing and distribute the text between three performers, two of them taking on the roles of each of the justices, and one of them taking the role of both attorneys arguing the case. The delivery is slightly heightened, the “errs”, “aahs”, throat clearings and coughs are slightly more deliberate and exaggerated than they would be in natural speech. The demeanor of the individual judges are clearly delineated, it’s was delightful to watch Susie Sokol switch from the prim Sandra Day O’Conner to the scrappy Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Scalia’s bullying intellect is well rendered, but such details are likely to be noticed only by folks who pay close attention to the supreme court. Similarly, it’s unclear how well most audience members would follow the legal aspects of the arguments, with a fairly complex web of citations to previous cases. In an adapted text, an author would likely streamline and provide expository context for each citation, but no such leeway is given and as a result, large chunks of the text descend into legal babble. This is in no way a criticism, it is simply a byproduct of the process, and part of the charm of the performance.

Countering the babble are the surreal and often very funny scenarios the justices regularly hypothesize to test the extreme boundaries of the arguments, as well as the naughtiness of the subject at hand juxtaposed against the formality of the proceedings. In addition there is a large projection of a microfiche filled with citations and legal text that is manipulated by the participants to highlight the area of the law that they’re currently discussing. The piece works itself into a frenzy of absurdity as papers are strewn over the floor, justices push themselves across the room on their wheeled chairs, and the attorney shouts their final arguments regarding nudity, expression, and the first amendment.

The piece is still considered “in progress”, although it felt in fine shape to me. Granted, as something of a supreme court fan and law junkie, I’ma pretty ideal audience member. The oral arguments of the supreme court are inherently theater, although of a very different sort than what is usually presented at the Public. Arguments are less about a working out of the legal issues at hand and more about justices signaling to the other justices what legal issues are occupying their minds, preparing for the deliberations that will happen behind closed doors. But for the public, the oral arguments and the final decisions are often the only insights into the court’s thinking. In transforming this text into a live performance, Elevator Repair Service has provided a vital and entertaining exploration of the issue of expression and censorship as well as the workings of the supreme court.

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