THE BLOG
09/25/2013 03:46 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2013

First Nighter: In "Arguendo" Elevator Repair Service Makes a Good Argument for Unbridled Enjoyment

Although I can't say I followed everyone of the ins and outs of Elevator Repair Service's Arguendo, at the Public, I had great fun trying to. That's because the company members presenting it--Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Ben Williams and Suzie Sokol--were having so much fun themselves.
Actually, the point may be that no one is expected to follow it. All us fans know by now that the ERS obsession is with the written word--or, in this instance, the transcribed word. The transcript the group is riffing on physically is the Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc. et al case argued before the Supreme Court on January 8, 1991.
The situation was that in South Bend, Indiana, the Glen Theater as well as the nearby Kitty Kat Lounge had been offering nude dancers. Whether or not such entertainment was covered under the First Amendment was the agitatedly worried bone of contention. After a lower court and a couple of appeals, the case came to the pillared Washington, D. C. building.
That's everything you need to know about the spoken content, for the simple reason that anything else might only confuse you. And utter confusion is where the players focus their play. While lawyers Uhl (Williams), the petitioner, and Ennis (Iveson), the respondent, make their restrained yet increasingly impassioned statements, the court members (Williams and Iveson switching wigs, along with Sokol and Knight) listen and address questions.
What's definitely worth knowing is that within his streamlined version of the courtroom set designer David Zinn has placed the lawyer's lectern and the judges' chairs on casters. He's also built a ramp on each side of the supposed judges' bench. The result is that the lawyers can wheel the lectern backwards, forwards, sideways and diagonally. So eventually can the judges navigate their chairs. In time, they coast down the ramps to hover near the lawyers or abruptly pull away from them.
The effect is that as the judges dissect the lawyers' remarks with precise--perhaps more accurately, niggling--queries, their grilling over things like the difference between conduct and expression edges dangerously but hilariously towards nonsense. More than that, the action heads into mounting chaos. One example of the foolishness expressed is a question put to one of the lawyers concerning where the First Amendment fits in with "someone killed while dancing." At least, that seems to be the concern as the moving lectern and chairs grow to near epic proportions.
Concluding whether the ERS is out to needle the lawyers or the judges is difficult. More likely, the idea is to send up both parties mercilessly. Beyond that, the company aim has to be questioning the efficacy of language under any circumstances. And where better to ask away than an enclave in which the use of language needs to be absolutely exact?
What's being said and what's being done in Arguendo--with its echo of the word "innuendo"--are at amusing odds and all the more disturbing for being so. Satire as anarchy is emphasized here, and the Elevator Repair Service is to be thanked for its bravura display of such knee-slapping anarchic behavior in black robes.
Before the court is called to order--so it can descend into rampaging disorder--a woman named Rebecca Jackson (Hoffman, who also plays a court aide) is interviewed on the Courthouse steps by television reporters (Knight, Williams, Iveson, Sokol). She's a blowzy, camera-loving woman who dances nude in another state but is concerned her $2000-$5000 weekly income could be whittled if an Indiana law is copied across state borders. Smile-for-the-viewers Jackson talks about the moral message she's sending by dancing nude and thereby glorifying the human body.
Towards the end of the 80-minute Arguendo, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Sokol) steps haltingly forward with her lace-collared robe to talk about why Sandra Day O'Connor and she decided to adorn--feminize--their robes. She goes on to say that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist added four thin stripes to each sleeve of his robe so that he wouldn't be "upstaged" by the women.
Because of Sokol's appearance at that point and her somewhat physical resemblance to Justice Ginsburg, the implication is that Justice Ginsburg was on the court when the Barnes v. Glen Theatre et al case occurred. She wasn't. The members. most of whom speak, were Rehnquist, White, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, O'Connor, Marshall, Blackmun and Stevens.
FYI: It's no spoiler to note that the January 11, 1991 decision declared the states had the right to decide what constitutes infringement of the right of expression. It may be a spoiler to mention that Arguendo boasts its own (male) nude dancing--undoubtedly more of ERS's delighted nose thumbing. But since I was warned on my way in, I don't think I can be called a spoiler and thereby ostracized.

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