-A Theatre Review By Tatiana Serafin–
Arguendo, currently playing at the Public Theater in New York through October 27th is a satirical verbatim portrayal of a portion of the Supreme Court’s hearing of the Barnes v. Glen Theater case. What begins as a seemingly serious court case soon devolves into an outrageous reality competition, spoofing the bizarre trial in which an Indiana statute requiring exotic dancers to wear “pasties” and a “G-string” was challenged by go-go dancers from the Glen Theatre and Kitty Kat Lounge.
Created and performed by the outstanding experimental theater troupe, Elevator Repair Service, the show is directed by John Collins and features Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol, and Ben Williams.
The minimalist set – the curtain opens revealing three black leather high-backed chairs that face the audience an elevated platform with two ramps on either side – morphs into an interactive space when images from the Supreme Court steps and façade as well as legal briefs are projected on the back wall.
Legalese is parched language and no amount of watering can nourish it. But the Elevator Repair Service actors have a knack for nurturing nuances, pairing each word with an exaggerated antic. When it works well in Arguendo (especially in one of the final scenes, more later), the juxtaposition reflects the ridiculousness of the arguments about G-strings and free speech that are being heard.
Arguendo is not as searing a success as the troupe’s Gatz, a seven hour verbatim reading of the Great Gatsby, that transports audiences into the world of glitz while a worker bee reads the novel aloud in a mundane office. In that much longer work, you never get tired of seeing the words spring from the page and scenes acted out by the wonderful cast. In Arguendo, however, sometimes the legal tit for tat gets heavy.
The play begins with a nude dancer, (she is not nude – that doesn’t come until later in the show – but dressed in bright late eighties shoulder pads and big hair) surrounded by a bevy of reporters, justifying her right to freedom of dance expression. Then come the judges whose facial ticks, and heavy body language mimic the real justices perfectly. Kudos in particular to Susie Sokol (troupe member and second grade school teacher at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn) who resembles Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg so closely you almost can’t tell it isn’t the sprightly nymph herself; but then with the hunch of a shoulder Sokol morphs into Justice Clarence Thomas (three actors alternate playing the nine justices).
The judges aren’t here to rule on nude bars – they make that clear. But nude bars don’t appeal to everyone, and it’s the level of nudity and freedom of expression that’s up for grabs in the case. After all, how much do pasties and a G-string really cover up? Why shouldn’t the dancers be allowed to wear whatever they want?
The orators are walking as fine a line as that G-string. Luckily, they are helped along by the other person in the room – the swirl of animated text projections by visual artist, Ben Rubin. The animated text even takes a bow at the end of the play.
The effect of the projections is dizzying. What is really being argued here? They ask as letters zigzag across the screen and papers are thrown around. A close inspection after the play reveals the papers to be sheets of music. Bravo to the actors who memorized all this mundane Supreme Court text!
Isn’t freedom of expression due in every performance? Towards the end, in a wild fit of passion, First Amendment lawyer arguing on behalf of the dancers, Bruce Ennis (1940-2000), to whom the performance is dedicated, sheds his clothing piecemeal, gyrates in his G-string and finally takes it all off. He’s a perfect 10 and the justices seem to orgasm in their chairs. (In a disclaimer in the playbill, Elevator Repair Service writes, “We are certain that the real Bruce Ennis would never present his case in the same dramatic fashion that our “Mr. Ennis” does; nevertheless we are ever grateful for his work (and the work of many others) defending the rights of artists to take creative license and express ourselves through performance.)
It’s hard to come to your senses after such a wild day at court, but audiences walk away with a better understanding of the real verdict in the Barnes Vrs. Glenn Theatre case. In a fractious vote of 5 for upholding the ban on G-strings and 4 against, the court upheld the public indecency trumped freedom of expression – “The proscription on public nudity is unrelated to the erotic message the dancers seek to convey.”