Elevator Repair Service, the New York–based company renowned for its devised-stage wizardry, may be best known in Los Angeles for Gatz. That mesmerizing, 6 1/2-hour, word-for-word staging of F. Scott Fitzgerald's modernist masterpiece The Great Gatsby played REDCAT in 2012.
In Arguendo, which opens this week at REDCAT, ERS turns to what one might assume would be the arcane and defiantly undramatic realm of American jurisprudence. Arguendo, which premiered to acclaim last year at the Public Theater, is the company's verbatim staging of the oral arguments from Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc., a 1991, Rehnquist-era Supreme Court case that pitted exotic dancers from the Kitty Kat Lounge in South Bend, Indiana, against a state blue law banning totally nude dancing. (The name is a Latin legal term meaning for the sake of argument.)
Like their other seemingly unstageable adaptations, such as The Sound and the Fury, the show is the brainchild of ERS artistic director John Collins, who also directs. Collins says that the impulses behind the ERS shows are essentially the same.
"I am always interested in texts that bring us some interesting problems to solve," he notes. "So that means, more often than not I'm drawn to texts that are not written as a play.
"Each presented its own kind of problem that we had to figure out how to solve theatrically while preserving something fundamental about the source text — trying to make the thing feel like an honest presentation," he adds.
With the Supreme Court, he had his problems cut out for him. Despite its surface of salacious subject matter, even by Hemingway's standards, the austerity and decorum of an hourlong oral argument (ERS' version runs about 80 minutes) doesn't leap to mind as being rife with riveting spectacle or even literary depth. In Barnes, however, Collins, who had been collecting the audio recordings of Supreme Court arguments for about ten years, thought he heard the potential for something theatrically gripping.
Consider the delicious play of ironies in this brief excerpt from the court transcript, in which Justice Anthony M. Kennedy (played onstage by Ben Williams) probes the ontological boundaries of performance:
Justice Kennedy: Suppose someone wanted to increase business at the car wash or in a bar and they hired a woman and said, "Now, you sit in this glass case." And this is an adults-only car wash. [Laughter] "You sit in this glass case and attract the customers." Is that permitted?
Bruce Ennis: Your Honor, I think it would, if it was intended as expressive activity, if it was performance dance.
Kennedy: No, it's just what I said. The employer says, "This is the job. You just sit up there."
Ennis: I think that would trigger First Amendment analysis. Whether the state could ban it or not would depend on the state's justifications.
Kennedy: Well, suppose he said, "I've heard the arguments in the Supreme Court and you have to dance." And she said, "I can't dance." And he said, "Just wander around when the music starts to play." [Laughter]
Ennis: Well, your Honor ...
Kennedy: I mean, that's the point, isn't it? It's a question of what is performance dance. What is it?
A five-actor ensemble interchangeably portrays the judges, advocates and various secondary characters. For the staging of this particular section, Collins says, the three actors playing the justices, who are at that moment downstage from actor Mike Iveson as Ennis, suddenly spin around in their chairs to face the audience.
"It's almost as if we go in for a close-up on Kennedy for this bit," Collins says. "And so I'm taking advantage of the fact that I know a good line is coming. And I'm using the staging almost the way you might create a shot list for a film. But I'm just letting the actors — because they're on these rolling chairs and a rolling podium — constantly reconfigure themselves, as if to create the effect of a moving camera."
That movement is echoed by an element that Collins considers the sixth member of the Arguendo ensemble — the projections of text that incorporate the reams of precedent and legal scholarship from which the oral argument springs. That constantly moving text, by visual artist Ben Rubin, will suddenly shift in concert with the actors, sometimes zooming into close focus on a single word, at other times forming an indistinguishable sea of language.
"It's almost like the dark matter of the Supreme Court is all this writing that has come before the argument and that informs it," he observes wryly. "So for the projections, I wanted to be able to see all of that — almost like turning a light onto all of that dark matter — whenever somebody references something in the argument, whether it's a justice or an advocate. ... It almost becomes a kind of a performer in itself."
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