‘Arguendo’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre appeals for viewers to see comedy in the court

‘Arguendo’ by the Elevator Repair Service is now at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre through April 27. Directed by John Collins. (Winyan Soo Hoo/The Washington Post)

The serious legal scholarship of Monty Python meets the comedy stylings of the U.S. Supreme Court in “Arguendo,” a verbatim reenactment of a constitutional case like none you’d ever see in a class at Georgetown Law.

Let’s just say the actors of Elevator Repair Service — New York-based practitioners of performance art — strip down the statutes in a most original way. The 70-minute show at Woolly Mammoth Theatre is guaranteed, in fact, to give audiences a whole new perspective on being a, er, member of the bar.

I could go on in this vein all day, even if the jocular “Arguendo” itself flirts with overstaying. The piece, directed by ERS’s leader, John Collins, and performed by a cast of five, is an extended sketch, more artfully choreographed, certainly, than anything you see on “Saturday Night Live.” But because much of the show consists of the actual oral arguments from a 1991 case, Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc. , the script is dry, and the evening becomes heavily dependent on its riffing on the justices’ mannerisms, and other bits of shtick. It’s clever, but thin.

The company has chosen a case that seems at once fairly straightforward and demonstrative of the types of constitutional questions that the Framers could never have imagined. It concerns the challenge by two clubs and three exotic dancers to an Indiana law banning public nudity. They asserted that the requirement that they wear pasties and G-strings while performing was a violation of their First Amendment rights to free expression.

The actors portray the lawyers for the dancers and the state of Indiana, as well as court clerks and interested onlookers. Crucially, too, four of them at one point or another portray all nine members of the court during the 1990-91 term. They roam the stage in reclining, rolling leather chairs. Constantly in motion, grunting and scowling and lobbing sarcastic observations, the justices (including Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O’Connor and Chief Justice William Rehnquist) come across as black-robed hecklers, whose gibes sometimes seem petty and other times reflect subtle analytical skills.


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

The show’s sophisticated video design, by Ben Rubin, is a wonderful teaching tool. Each time a lawyer or justice cites case law, the screen behind them reveals a database search that pinpoints the illustrative citation and keys in on the relevant passage. (The justices, who themselves become impatient with the proceedings, turn from us at times and playfully manipulate the projections.)

As the justices grapple with the issue of just what constitutes artistic expression — whether exotic dancers are, in fact dancers, and thereby entitled to constitutional protection — the troupe transforms the show itself into an exemplar of the debate. The proceedings turn from an abstracted discourse to a blatant full-frontal demonstration of what the argument is about. (A special court commendation is due to Mike Iveson, the actor who to the most radical degree bares his character’s devotion to jurisprudence.)

The city’s vast army of holders of LLBs and JDs is perhaps the likeliest to find the dissection of Barnes v. Glen Theatre a gripping exercise. It’s nowhere near the monumental achievement of “Gatz,” Elevator Repair Service’s six-hour, word-for-word staged recitation of “The Great Gatsby,” which proved to be a bold, bracing endurance test. In dramatizing the justices’ incisive divining of weaknesses in the lawyers’ arguments in the Indiana case, “Arguendo” is setting lower theatrical sights. It’s surely more fun than reading the briefs, even if it is at its most entertaining only briefly.

Arguendo

By Elevator Repair Service. Directed by John Collins. Set, David Zinn; lighting, Mark Barton; costumes, Jacob A. Climer; sound, Matt Tierney; video, Ben Rubin. With Maggie Hoffman, Ben Williams, Susie Sokol, Vin Knight. About 70 minutes. Tickets $20-$92.50. Through April 27 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Visit www.woollymammoth.net or call 202-393-3939.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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