Habeas Corpus

Review of Arguendo Elevator Repair Service’s Arguendo, directed by John Collins, is a gutsy idea: take a Supreme Court hearing and turn it into theater. But wait, Supreme Court hearings—like any courtroom proceedings—are already theater. Their sense of the theatrical nature of the “performance” of argument—which is what court proceedings are all about—is what gives ERS the wherewithal to get away with this.

You’d think listening to lawyers and justices, for the lay audience, would be pretty tedious, and, indeed, that would be the case if the case were contract law or something, but ERS judiciously chooses the kind of hearing that will get an audience interested. And few things get those who love art and theater more motivated than questions concerning the First Amendment right to free expression. The U.S., we all know, hasn’t actually been sterling in its attitudes toward censorship. There’s an old Puritan ethic deeply engraved on the books, so to speak, and that old “I know when I see it” attitude toward indecency, obscenity, and moral turpitude has made do-righters ban and outlaw and confiscate and fine for quite some time.

The case in Arguendo (Latin for “for the sake of argument”) is Barnes vs. Glen Theatre (1990-91) and has to do with whether or not the good people of Indiana are within their rights in insisting that erotic or exotic dancers wear pasties and a G-string while performing for their public (if you think “pasties and a G-string” is a silly phrase—as I do—you’ll be even more convinced after hearing it introduced into high-toned courtspeak, and any attempt to find synonyms fails comically), or whether said dancers are within their rights of free expression, under the First Amendment, to cavort as God intended—or, at least, as Nature created.

The comic potential of this face-off should be obvious at once. When is movement actually “dance” (which is expressive) as opposed to “conduct” (which isn’t?); when is nudity allowed—in high-brow pursuits like theater (where we don’t expressly pay to see it) and not in salacious arenas of sleaze (where we do), apparently; when is a prohibition on “manner” permitted without invoking censorship—whether or not rock music is music or has “a message,” you can legally set a volume limit for public performances without fear of circumventing free speech. All the briefs and decisions that fuel these sorts of absurd abstruosities are wonderfully presented as projections behind the action and in an interactive manner, so that the lawyers and the justices can fling them about or jump to the relevant passage.

Indeed, Arguendo is more visually stimulating than one might expect. In addition to the fast-moving projections of text, there are projections of austere columns to create a courtroom air of rectitude; there are heavy red drapes to suggest solemnity but also, perhaps, something a bit hush-hush behind the scenes. A cast of two women and three men enact all the justices, the two lawyers, the press, and an outgoing dancer from Michigan concerned about the case, and there is lively use of movement as the justices fling themselves about on wheeled office chairs, strike poses, form huddles, and slump and fidget with a great sense of body language and the dignity (and comic potential) of their office. At a certain point, the sheer absurdity of hypotheticals and nick-picking explodes in an avalanche of paper and the nudity of the counsel for Glen Theatre.

And the nudity on stage speaks brilliantly to the matter the court must decide (and how they rule on the case may surprise you): if a person is nude in public by free will (as opposed to, say, by theft of clothes) does that nudity have a message or is it simply gratuitous, having no meaning, no merit, etc.?

Those of us in the arts know, of course, that the nude always has meaning and merit because it is nude. The justices are not likely to be halted by aesthetic niceties and press on to find the means to support a statute (which Glen Theatre, et al., is fighting) to stop nudity simply intended to make money from those who pay to see nudity. Though never stated as such, that becomes the contention. The ideal that the good people of Indiana staunchly support is that paying to see nudity much less being paid to reveal nudity should be “beneath” the behavioral norms of their citizenry and, if it isn’t, the law will enforce that ideal. To this the majority of the court can concur, though there were, in the Decision, three separate statements as to why they reached that decision.

The flagrant nudity in Arguendo, though, supports an interesting point: none of us paid to see that nudity; we paid to see a play containing it. We might well have preferred to do without it, and yet it is part of the play and so is acceptable and not to be regarded in terms of comeliness. The message of such nudity is that it can occur, that it manifests something about the nature of theater. It makes a worthwhile comment, particularly when set against the clever little coda at the end of the play—as with all of the play, all words come verbatim from previous sources—in which Chief Justice Rehnquist puts chevrons on his judicial robe to avoid being “upstaged” (his term) by the women on the bench who have taken to wearing finely wrought collars.

In the end, Arguendo gives fresh insight into that ancient notion that “all the world’s a stage” and, by re-enacting this well-chosen, though minor case, they stage one of the great assets of live performance over any other representation of action, whether as words or on film. The justices may be loathe to reflect on the performative nature of the law but the very word “arguendo” implies sophistry, or argument simply for its own sake or for its rhetorical finesse. At that point, we’re well launched on the arc that theater makes explicit: nothing intentional, such as courtroom conduct or decoration or disrobing in public, is without “meaning,” and only the nicety of choosing which messages we value creates the hierarchy the law—always provisional and revisable—will uphold in the social arena.

We all go about our business in the midst of a grand work in progress.


Arguendo appears as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas

Elevator Repair Service’s Arguendo Directed by John Collins

Cast: Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol, Ben Williams

Created and performed by Elevator Repair Service Media Software by The Office of Creative Research Set Designer: David Zinn; Lighting Designer: Mark Barton; Costume Designer: Jacob A. Climer; Sound Designer: Matt Tierney; Video Designer: Ben Rubin; Producer: Ariana Smart Truman

June 18-20: 8 p.m.; June 21: 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.; June 22: 1 p.m.

Yale Repertory Theatre