Arguendo: A Latin term meaning “in arguing” or “for the sake of argument.”
Jurisprudence: The study, knowledge or science of law.
Dictum: An opinion by a court on a question that is not essential to its decision in the case at hand, even though…
When your play bill includes a glossary of terms and cites legal precedents you know this is not going to be a typical night of theater. This was my week of seeing shows by visiting theater companies. First Kneehigh Theatre’s charming production of Brief Encounter (did I mention I loved that show) and now Elevator Repair Service’s (ERS) original production of Arguendo.
I think this show may be the closest thing I’ve ever seen to Non-fiction Theater. In most cases shows are “inspired by,” or “based on” other works. What ERS has done here is take the actual transcript of a Supreme Court case and perform it for you verbatim. Yeah, that doesn’t exactly sound like an enjoyable evening does it? The topic at least is kind of interesting; the court case reviewed is a 1990’s suit between the state of Indiana and a local strip club. Indian passed a law banning full nude performances at strip clubs, which is an extension of their no public nudity law, and a local club sued on the grounds that is was a first amendment violation of their right to freedom of expression. The law suit goes back and forth first one side winning then the other until it landed on steps of the Supreme Court.
Now the text of the court case has a certain ironic humor to it as you hear this august body question the difference between nudity in a strip club and nudity in an opera or uttering the words g-string and pasty and what strippers are attempting to “express” with their nude dancing that is inhibited by the aforementioned g-stings and pasties. However, a lot of the language starts to get dense and sometime incomprehensible to me as the legalese starts to overwhelm the dialog. After all they are speaking in jargon specific to their profession. To keep the audience engaged when the language turns to the talk of “tautologies” (I’ve got a pretty good vocabulary but even I had to go look up some of these terms) the cast engages in a pretty elaborate chair and podium ballet.
Three actors play the roles of all three judges and they start on a raised dais and roll their chairs from one spot to the other as they depict the different judges but pretty soon they’re rolling down ramps to the lower stage and engage in a round robin of questioning while they roll ‘round the attorney who endeavors to keep facing the judges but not excluding the audiences and all while taking his wheeled podium where 'ere he goes. It does a fair job or keeping the audience engaged in what would be otherwise pretty dry dialog. This does have a limited shelf life however; by about halfway through (it only runs about 70 minutes) the shtick starts to get a little repetitive and acknowledging this they ramp up the on stage chaos during the defense attorney's comments and it devolves into on stage pandemonium with the defense attorney shouting his lines and gyrating on stage in nothing but his microphone pack (I assume that is en embellishment added to the court proceedings) while the Justices whirl about in their chairs tossing briefs (legal documents not underwear) into the air.
That’s a long way of saying they almost pull it off and I totally get what the point they were making with the gold lame g-string and eventually the Full Monty but by the end it just felt like a desperate gag to keep the audience engaged. I didn’t dislike the play at all, I appreciated the effort and it was definitely interesting from an intellectual stand point. In the end the Court’s decision, upholding Indiana’s ban on nude dancing, seemed to have nothing to do with any great Constitutional insight but a rather arbitrary statement that “Eh, we’ve always limited this sort of behavior so why stop now.” It tied in nicely with a depiction they had on stage of the Justices playing Rochambeau to decide the case (biggest laugh of the night.)
The play is at Woolly Mammoth ‘til April 27, if you go you may want to take a lawyer with you. One they can help explain everything to you and two they might really enjoy it. Next up at Woolly Mammoth - The Totalitarians, stay tuned.