The show: "Arguendo" at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven.
What makes it special?: A presentation by New York's Elevator Repair Service, part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
First impressions?: Kicking off the theatrical events of New Haven's Festival of Arts & Ideas is a stage work about arts and ideas, or at east a kind of art and the oral legal arguments in the 1991 case presented to the Supreme Court involving a First Amendment case brought by a group of exotic dancers and the proprietors of the Kitty Kat Lounge in Indiana and the validity of the Indiana law requiring pasties and g-strings.
There's something about a juicy courtroom battle that automatically propels a narrative and this one speeds like a runaway train. The back-and-forth between the two opposing sides gets super-sized when you add nine foolishly imperious justices, and play them in such a stylized way that you feel you're watching a theater of the ridiculous troupe. Well, you are. (There were other times when I thought I was seeing another Christopher Bayes' commedia dell'arte production at the Rep.)
The arguments, taken from transcripts, are intellectually feisty (when they're not being foolish), the justices have larger egos than even the other Supremes, and though the last quarter of the show spins in place a bit, it still makes lively and engaging theater of the absurd.
Isn't this the company that read the entire "The Great Gatsby" on stage?: Yep, not to mention the verbatim versions of Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" and Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises." By taking extended works, whether it's a book by F. Scott Fitzgerald or the transcripts from a Supreme Court case, onto the stage for a not-too-literal transfer, it places the language of the texts — and its meanings — in a striking different and surprising theatrical context.
G-strings and pasties, that sounds quaint: It does, doesn't it — and it also makes you feel how out-of-touch justices were just a tad over 20 years ago. The arguments both valid and silly, spin fast and furious, but the one point that it circles again and again is the constitutional question of whether movement is a valid form of communication.
And is it?: No spoilers here. That wouldn't be jurisprudent of me. But the audience watching the kinetic production — nimbly driven, I mean staged, by John Collins and featuring a tight ensemble of five actors playing the justices, the press, and the principal figures of the case — would come to a unanimous verdict. They include Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, and especially Ben Williams, whose dry takes are as hysterical as the mayhem around him.
But isn't courtroom staging pretty static?: Not if your reclining jurist chair is on wheels and you're allowed to spin, twirl, roll, pivot as the arguments get more and more tangled among egos, wordplay, hypotheticals and increasing lunacy worthy of the Marx Brothers.
Giving the production added oomph and swoosh is sound designer Matt Tierney and the terrific video projections designed by Ben Rubin, using media software by The Office of Creative Research.
Towards the end some of the over-the-top turns get to be boring, despite its full-throttle, high-flying energy. But the work returns to earth, and ever-so-gently, in a coda featuring Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Susie Sokol) — as the second woman of the alpha-mad court — talking about something so simple, but telling, as the justices' robes.
Who will like it?: Folks at the Yale School of Law. Exotic dancers. Fans of theater of the ridiculous.
Who won't: Antonin Scalia.
For the kids?: Not unless they're in a law school fast track. There's also nudity — but it's not what you think.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Six to three in favor of the production. Majority rules. Let the dancing begin, modestly.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: No wonder the justices don't want live cameras during the arguments.
The basics: The show plays through Sunday, June 22. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. at 1120 Chapel St. The running time is 80 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $35 and $65, general admission. There are post show discussions on First Amendment rights to expression. Information: www.artidea.org.
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