We are often told that justice is blind, but we’re never shown that judgment is absurd.
Although the Elevator Repair Service’s new production, “Arguendo,” was not written by a playwright, it is faithfully fashioned from the 1991 Supreme Court case Barnes v. Glen Theatre, which determined whether nude dancing was protected under the First Amendment’s freedom of expression clause and whether state laws banning such displays should be declared unconstitutional.
The play, rather than simply rehashing the arguments of the case, focuses on the methods used by the justices to make their decisions and mimics them almost to the point of mockery.
With five actors constantly shifting their roles—representing all nine justices, two lawyers, and various other characters—the play takes on the choreographed nature of a complex dance. Ben Williams and Mike Iveson, who play the attorneys on either side of the case, both perform admirably, displaying a full range of emotions while being constantly hampered, interrupted, encircled, and occasionally ensnared by the queries of the justices.
The constant switching means that the play requires the audience to pay attention, since looking away even for an instant will leave viewers hopelessly adrift, lost in the steady stream of legal terms, prior rulings, state legislation, and esoteric lines of questioning from the justices. To aid us plebeians in this maze of pronouncements and statutes is, of all things, the scenery: A full-stage screen behind the justices displays the text being cited, in an almost mimeographed form, and sliding to the exact point being discussed at the necessary time. It becomes as much a source of amusement as information, especially when the justices were virtually wrestling for control of the text. Designed by Ben Rubin, “Arguendo” stands as an inspiration to those who aspire to use video projection in live performances.
Unfortunately, by the end, the audience is left with a complicated and convoluted message. Yes, the nine people who interpret every law in the United States through the lens of the Constitution can be a bit strange, but “Arguendo” attempts to make some higher points as well—and used full-frontal nudity to do so. “Arguendo” seeks to act as a continuation of the case the actors are making—another link in a long chain of argument involving the definition of dance, the difference between high- and low-brow performances, and the place of legitimate government interests. But the ability of the Elevator Repair Service to disrobe the secrecy of the Supreme Court—and reveal the chaos within—shines throughout.
“Arguendo” runs through Oct. 13 at the Public Theatre.