I respected Arguendo more than I liked it. From a technical perspective, it’s near flawless.
Four fine actors (Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol, and Ben Williams) play the nine justices of the 1990 Supreme Court in a mix and match fashion that lets them stretch different muscles as each of several justices, regardless of age or gender. The fun of Arguendo rests on the feats of impersonation and increasingly absurd antics of this supremely talented and well-directed cast.
A majority of the Arguendo text is verbatim excerpts from the transcripts of Barnes vs. Glen Theater, et al. a 1990 Supreme Court case that concerned the efforts by a group of exotic dancers to lift a Tennessee ban on public nudity, at least enough to make the extra money they believed would come if they were allowed to remove their state-mandated pasties. At the risk of spoiling something that’s been on the public record for twenty-five years, the justices found in favor of the state.
I saw Arguendo on Tuesday evening, mere hours after the Supreme Court handed down their most recent big decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which removed restrictions on campaign finance contributions. That the 1990 case and today’s are bridged by the judicial tenure of two still-sitting Justices (Scalia and Kennedy) puts in stark relief the generation-long influence over our law and culture that these appointed public servants possess.
Arguendo dives into the absurdity of any small group taking it upon themselves to arbitrate and define such ephemeral notions as expression, obscenity, performance and speech. Several times during Arguendo various characters make the point that if the Court declares that the act of dancing naked is expressive performance, than any sequence of movements, even pointed stillness, can be as well. Elevator Repair Service seems to come down on the “yeah, of course it is” side, as the cast begins pushing the limits of “movement” and “dance” in increasingly bizarre and…. well let’s just say revealing ways. (Come on, of course there’s nudity in the play specifically about nudity.)
The cast is supported ably by Ben Rubin’s video projections, which are among the best I’ve seen (between this and Brief Encounter, there’s some top-level projection work in town right now), miraculously making a seemingly endless swath of legal transcripts legitimately fun. The high level of technique and fantastic comic acting on display is blessedly enough to cover the fact that the material itself is largely dry, and the concept perhaps more appropriate to a skit than a full-length play. As is, Director John Collins and his team wisely wrap things up around the 70 minute mark, sliding to a finish just as the material threatens to wear out it’s welcome.
The kitchen-sink, anything goes, physical acting approach is necessary given the relatively thin material. The Elevator Repair Service team are known to set a high degree of difficulty for themselves (e.g: their legendary eight-hour Great Gatsby adaptation Gatz) and they’ve met perhaps their greatest challenge in the jargon and legalese of the Supreme Court. It’s a problem they only barely solve. At times it feels like all the wild antics serve as a distraction from the fact that there’s just not much there there, man. But these are small complaints given the sheer level of guts and skill it took to get this working at all. One comes away with sincere respect and a thrilling feeling of “how did they pull that off?”
There’s an embarrassment of riches for the DC theatre-goer this month. The World Stages festival over at the Kennedy Center; Kneehigh’s lovely Brief Encounter in all too brief residency at the Lansburgh; and now the impeccable technique of Arguendo. Good times, indeed.