You know you've arrived at the Public Theater when a staged performance of a First Amendment Supreme Court case is preceded by a warning of full-frontal male nudity.
Elevator Repair Service's John Collins is an expert in theatrical alchemy, turning nontheatrical texts into fully realized productions for the stage. He masterminded the 2010 Public Theater production of Gatz, a seven-hour staged reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel The Great Gatsby, which opened to a rave review. Luckily for those yet to dabble in the work of Collins or ERS, this production is only an 80-minute commitment.
Collins presents, verbatim, the oral arguments presented to the Supreme Court during the 1991 case Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc. The landmark case for First Amendment freedom of expression aired the grievances of a group of nude dancers from South Bend, Indiana's Kitty Kat Lounge, who claimed that Indiana's statewide prohibition of public nudity unconstitutionally inhibited their freedom of expression as "exotic" performers.
Collins' direction primarily highlights the innate absurdity in the sober debate over pasties and G-strings earnestly tripping off the tongues of two buttoned-up lawyers and an austere panel of Constitution interpreters, led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist (falling in line behind him are Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Byron White, Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, David Souter, and John P. Stevens). The presentation is so loyal to the original oral arguments throughout the majority of the play that performing it onstage offers relatively little to heighten it.
Of the five-person company (made up of Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol, and Ben Williams, all offering strong comedic performances), three members at a time divide the roles of the nine justices as they tool around the stage in rolling office chairs, accosting the attorneys like The Three Stooges. While the schizophrenic caricatures of these revered legal figures are entertaining, they serve more as comic antics to keep us engaged while we ingest the hefty legal content. Even for the Constitutional-law buffs in the audience, following the nuances of the oral arguments is an intellectual workout. Ben Rubin's animated projections of legal definitions and precedent-setting cases are helpful (and add to the whimsical atmosphere), but they fly by so quickly that unless you did your homework beforehand, you're in danger of it sounding like a lecture from the Peanuts teacher.
Luckily, as the production unfolds, the verbal arguments take a backseat to the theatrical tornado that is unleashed onstage. Collins puts us face to…face…with the Constitutional issue being orally debated (visual aids are the best teaching tools, after all), allowing us to make our own judgments about the case as well as the Supreme Court as an arbiter of the highest law in the land.
Though the dress-up bin costumes (designed by Jacob A. Climer) and cartoonish set pieces (by David Zinn) shine a less-than-reverential light on the scene, Collins never truly shows his hand, keeping to himself any personal feelings about the Supreme Court and its interpretation of our Constitutional freedoms. True, he blatantly points to the humor as the stoic Sandra Day O'Connor and her colleagues mull over the artistically expressive message behind nude rhythmic movement. But while you're laughing at the absurdity of the debate, you can't help but feel a little proud to live in a nation that spends six months pondering the expressive freedoms our founding fathers hoped to bestow upon the strippers from the Kitty Kat Lounge — and debating whether or not the burdensome pasty unduly suppresses them. Whether Arguendo mocks or celebrates this fact is for you to decide.