Sunday, 20 October 2013

Elevator Repair Service's ARGUENDO at the Public Theatre

     I knew that ARGUENDO was a reenactment of the 1991 Supreme Court arguments over an Indiana statute forbidding nude dancing in nightclubs. I didn't know why the playful title sounded musical to me. "Arguendo" as in crescendo or diminuendo. Well, ARGUENDO does have a kind of musical structure, beginning with a very visually static press conference and building over its eighty minutes to a bizarre bacchanal and closing with quiet, static moments. It's not merely a re-enactment of a court case that had arguments that were like something out of an Ionesco play, though no playwright could invent the dialogue we hear. "Would the same law apply if there were nude dancing at an opera?" When is a dance expressive and when is it merely obscene? The justices sound foolish, but so do the lawyers on both sides of the case. This is not so much a play about freedom of expression and the right to dance naked as it is about the absurdity of a Supreme Court argument. And of the power games of the court. When the female judges decided on lace collars on their robes, Chief Justice Rehnquist had four thin gold strips put on the arms of his robes to show his authority. The idea came from a low budget production of Gilbert and Sullivan's IOLANTHE, and the daftness of the justice in that operetta comes to mind here. Of course Antonin Scalia comes off as chief clown, but how could he not?
     If I expected one of those parables of artistic freedom, I was pleasantly surprised to see something far richer and more disturbing. Funny, yes, but also scary. This is the highest level of our justice system sounding like lunatics. John Collins has staged the work to underscore the lunacy. Justices in wheeled chairs glide around as if in an odd ballet. Eventually the argument reaches a mad, musical conclusion with the help of the "Dance of the Seven Veils" from Strauss's SALOME and the Bacchanale from "SAMSON ET DALILA." There is, as there must be, a bit of nude dancing, but not at all how one expected it. Even at eighty minutes, the work feels repetitive at times, but that is because the arguments are madly repetitive.
     The six member cast manages to do deadly caricatures of the justice's mannerisms. They have obviously listened to the recordings of the trial, but they don't merely mimic. Everything is raised to the level of cartoon. As the voices are amplified, so are the impersonations.
     I must say that at my performance a number of people didn't make it to the end. Despite the repetition, it's a work that must be seen whole. It is full of surprises.

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