‘Arguendo’ at Woolly Mammoth blends reality, absurdity in show about Supreme Court case


Elevator Repair Service members in the play "Arguendo." (Joan Marcus)

What exactly can you do in public while nude? When the Supreme Court pondered the question in 1991, a lawyer began like this:

A man walks into a bar.

“Once inside the bar,” the lawyer argued, “he could not walk naked up and down the aisles in the bar, nor could he sit down at a table without his clothes on, nor could he stand up on the bar or on a stage at the front of that public establishment without his clothes on.”

“He can evidently sing in an opera without his clothes on,” replied Justice Antonin Scalia.

This dialogue is precisely what you’ll hear in “Arguendo,” the latest experiment from the New York-based performance group Elevator Repair Service. But what you’ll see at Woolly Mammoth is not quite how oral arguments look in court.

Expect video projections of relevant legal decisions, justices whirling around in rolling chairs, some sort of movement that could probably be called “dance” and maybe a little nudity — which is fitting for a case debating the First Amendment rights of exotic dancers in a place called the Kitty Kat Lounge.

“There are aspects of the show that are pretty performative, or even circus-like,” says John Collins, artistic director of ERS and director of “Arguendo” — a show praised last fall by the New York Times for its “cool, obsessive genius.”

Yet the text is verbatim, straight from the record, something that has become a house style for ERS since the group last performed in Washington. A decade ago ERS appeared at Dance Place with “Room Tone,” an imaginative riff on Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw.”

“We were just on the cusp of big transition, mostly due to ‘Gatz,’ ” Collins says by phone from the company’s offices in Manhattan. “Room Tone” was a freewheeling, condensed literary adaptation, but “Gatz” was every single word of “The Great Gatsby,” read and enacted by a small group in an office setting. The performance took 61 / 2 hours, and it became a sensation.

“We figured it would fail,” Collins says of the “crazy stunt” of acting out the entire book. “The scale of the piece, the notoriety of the novel, and just the audacity of it — that got us launched on a lot of international touring. It put us on the map in a new way.”

That was in the middle of the last decade, and though rights issues kept “Gatz” off New York stages until 2010, ERS — an ensemble led by Collins — increasingly expanded its audience and its staff. The company developed partnerships with New York’s Public Theater and the New York Theatre Workshop (ERS has no stage of its own) and clicked with more high-minded novel adaptations. They took on Faulkner in “The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928)” and Hemingway in “The Select (The Sun Also Rises).”

A different verbatim project, called “No Great Society,” re-created episodes of William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” and “The Steve Allen Show” that both featured Jack Kerouac. ERS company member Susie Sokol, who plays Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and others in “Arguendo,” played Kerouac, who was apparently soused on Buckley’s show.

“We had a lot of fun with that one,” Collins says.

Collins confesses to a “nerdy hobby” of downloading Supreme Court oral arguments; the dialogue at the top of this story comes from Oyez.org, a user-friendly archive site that Collins happily touts. (You can listen to the 1991 argument there.) The legal questions around “Gatz” only fanned that flame, so by the time someone asked whether Collins might have a ripe topic for a conference on citizenship, he replied, “I’ve always had this fantasy about reading this one argument aloud on stage.”

When Collins and some ERS colleagues met with Woolly Mammoth artistic director Howard Shalwitz a few years ago to informally kick around some ideas, Collins again mentioned that he had a Supreme Court case on his mind.

Shalwitz recalls: “I said, ‘Stop there. Let’s focus on that.’ It was really that simple.”

The case pitted Indiana indecency law vs. raunchy dancing in Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc. The 5 to 4 ruling went against Glen Theatre, the Kitty Kat Lounge and the dancers who claimed that their free expression was abridged by state-mandated pasties and G-strings.

“There is kind of an absurdity factor,” Collins says of Barnes v. Glen Theatre. “But you could follow the law, even though the case was asking some really difficult questions. What is ‘conduct,’ and what is ‘performance’? Is it expression, or just something somebody’s doing? Those questions are very interesting to me as an experimental theater maker. And those kinds of questions are most interesting when you don’t really know the answer.”

Woolly arranged to get Collins into an oral argument at the court and is organizing an impressive slate of post-show talks with lawyers, scholars and court experts throughout the “Arguendo” run. Woolly co-commissioned the project along with the Public Theater, Boston’s ArtsEmerson and the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, a lineup of support that Shalwitz says is “a measure of their stature as a company.”

At bottom, though, is “Arguendo” — a Latin term meaning “for the sake of argument” — just a loopy knockoff of the high court? Shalwitz doesn’t think so.

“You hear the whole case here,” Shalwitz says. “In that sense, it’s not editorialized.” As for the extravagant “behavior” that ERS devises to go along with the text, which includes interviews and tidbits that don’t come from the court transcript, Shalwitz says: “That point of view will be for audiences to judge. I don’t think it’s going to be easy to decipher any point of view that John has.”

“We are absolutely not out to mock the court,” Collins says. “People will read that into it because some of it is so damn funny. But the text is exactly what they say in court.”

Still, it sounds as if ERS is having a bit of campy fun.

“I have to confess, I hope we are,” Collins says. “It goes to an absurd place, and we keep pulling it back. There is tension between the serious constitutional inquiry and something very silly.”

Obviously, the atmosphere at Woolly — a block from Judiciary Square and an easy walk from the Supreme Court — will be different from anywhere else ERS is likely to play.

“A lot of audience members here will have very big stakes in what they’re watching,” Shalwitz says.

“I’m excited,” Collins says, “and extremely nervous about who’s going to come see it.”

Arguendo performed by Elevator Repair Service. Through April 27 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Tickets $35-$87, subject to change. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net.

Nelson Pressley has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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