There’s no shortage of courtroom drama on both the big and small screen these days, but Arguendo, recently staged by the Elevator Repair Service at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC, might just be the best thing to happen to the legal profession since Inherit the Wind.
Arguendo tells the story of Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc., a Supreme Court case brought by an ensemble of exotic dancers who claimed that a restriction on public nudity was a violation of their First Amendment rights to artistic expression. Just as it did in Gatz, a six-hour staging of The Great Gatsby, the Elevator Repair Service assembled the show entirely from the original text of the oral argument and some of the interviews of the dancers. The actors imitate the posture, cadence and intonation of the major players as accurately as possible. (The production is one of few to have a movement dramaturg, Katharine Profeta.)
At first glance, the show seems to follow a theme similar to Inherit the Wind. In that dramatization of the Scopes Monkey trial, rubes set prudish and foolish restrictions, and the audience’s sympathies naturally lie with the pioneers daring to buck the prevailing culture. Arguendo seems to side with the dancers, who seem silly but certainly not threatening. On the surface, the central question is whether nudity allows an artist to communicate a particular message that, in the words of the oral argument, could not be expressed “in any other way except by nude dancing.”
The audience gets a practical demonstration of this near the end of the show, since although the text is faithful to the transcripts of the arguments, the staging isn’t. In this production, the lawyer for the dancers indulges in a chaotic striptease and dance near the end of his closing argument, leaving the audience to decide whether forcing him to cover up would warp the message of this artistic exhibition.
But long before the clothes come off, there is already something faintly outrageous about the case and deeper questions brewing. The nine justices are played by only three actors, who change their posture and affect to make it clear when a different justice is speaking. (One justice apparently needed no such hints; when one actor’s first line was “He can evidently sing in an opera without his clothes on” several audience members were heard to mutter, “Scalia.”)
The justices begin on a plinth that resembles the actual Supreme Court (set design by David Zinn), but shortly after the arguments begin, they send their wheeled chairs zooming down ramps to the main part of the stage. For the rest of the play they scoot around, confer, and advance menacingly on the lawyer, as suits their mood.
Each lawyer is barraged by the justices, physically and intellectually, as they raise wild-sounding hypotheticals to probe the logical consequences of each side’s view of the Constitution. The justices ask if the lawyer for the state (Ben Williams) whether it would make a difference if the go-go dancers weren’t being paid for their performances, or if they put a sign up on the stage saying “Nudity is very nice” and claimed the dance was meant as a practical proof, and whether the statute would also ban the nudity scripted into the Broadway musical Hair.
When the dancers’ lawyer (Mike Iveson) gets a turn, the justices press him on what, exactly, constitutes a dance. Could a car wash put nude women on display to drum up business, provided they occasionally did a few syncopated steps? If a dancer stabbed someone during her performance, but claimed the murder was part of the theme she was trying to express, would it really trigger First Amendment scrutiny?
These reducto ad absurdum questions are addressed gravely by the two attorneys, with the dancers’ lawyer conceding that, by his argument, murder-dance would trigger a higher level of scrutiny than ordinary murder, but he felt it could still be safely outlawed. The conversation wavers on the edge of absurdity, verging on angels-dancing-on-pins territory, but the show is grounded, appropriately enough, by the use of precedent.
As case after case is brought up and analyzed, it becomes obvious that the logical extension of this ruling, however odd, will affect future rulings. After all, the lawyers and justices refer to a case (Ward v. Rock Against Racism) that dealt with whether a noise ordinance was an unconstitutional limit on free expression. Rock bands unsuccessfully argued that their message could only accurately be communicated when delivered at earsplitting volume. Whatever the musicians’ personal interest in nudity, it is unlikely that they realized that losing Ward could bar the door to exotic dancers in the future. Their case had a longer shadow than the original players could anticipate. The question of murder-dance as expression no longer feels like a non-sequitur.
The audience doesn’t have much trouble keeping up as the citations fly thick and fast, because Arguendo makes one of the best uses of projection I’ve ever seen in a play (video designer Ben Rubin). The back wall of the stage is given over to columns and columns of tiny text, which swoop over and zoom in when a lawyer or a justice references a specific test or precedent. The aide-memoire doesn’t feel like a crutch for the audience, since the actors interact with it as well, gesturing to pull up points that support their line of argument, or scrolling ahead to parry. When, at the end of the show, the text dips along with the actors in an animated bow, it feels well deserved.
The overall impression of the wall of text isn’t of a weighty, dependable history book, but of a fragile tapestry, with nine curators and caretakers frantically trying to keep the fabric from unravelling. The judges, flying like dervishes across the stage, seem much less interested in the plight of the dancers than the problem of ruling as narrowly as possible, so that Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc. is never called up in a future court to cause new problems.
Although most coverage of the Supreme Court today focuses on the justices in opposition to one another, scrutinizing their individual histories, politics, and points of view, this production makes them feel like members of a brotherhood. The four actors who play the justices (Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol, and Ben Williams) shift easily between the distinct roles, creating an impression of continuity and unity beyond the furious questioning.
Even the lawyers seem bound together with the justices, with Iveson and Williams trading positions on the bench for those before the bar in each half of the oral argument. The process is still adversarial, but the battle lines aren’t drawn between the justices or even the opposing lawyers.
Instead of a conflict between prurience and puritanism, the audience has found itself in a pitched battle between order and entropy. The justices need to descend into hypothetical absurdities in order to guard against real ones, and can best wield their power by deploying as little of it as possible.
By recounting a case about lewdness and transgression, Arguendo manages to make modesty—of the judicial variety—feel heroic and even romantic. It’s a nice corrective to the short-term, partisan gawking that tends to dominate Supreme Court coverage.