The play Arguendo ran at the Public Theater in New York City from September 10 – October 27, 2013. I agree with the New York Times critic, Ben Brantley, who asserted that, “Arguendo is one of those shows that while occasionally tedious in the viewing (even at 80 minutes), keeps growing richer and more insightful in the remembrance.”
Just as I think it prudent not to read reviews before I see a play, I refrained from writing about Arguendo while fresh in my mind. To share the details of my reactions seemed to me a spoiler for those still planning to see it. This was a unique reaction to writing in that I never before felt how I framed a theater experience might ruin the fun for future audience goers. What was ironic was that when I bought my tickets at the Public Theater box office, the ticket seller threw a major spoiler at me by cautioning me that there is full nudity, and, she specified, full male nudity during the performance. To what degree the Public had to alert the audience for legal reasons or it was an audience viewer courtesy or simply a lead up to the play’s comedy, I don’t know.
I thought, well, isn’t that nice for a change, it’s the man who is nude in public not the woman—an artistic choice geared more for the feminine viewing curiosity than masculine. How classy! I chose to remain classy about it too, to live in the moment, and not investigate which of the actors was to bare all in advance. I have seen Elevator Repair Service productions before, the wide range of themes, and its fine ensemble of actors is a part of the draw. It was all good whoever did or did not do the undressing. Nudity in a play is not necessarily a draw for me in any case, but I trusted this company’s artistic integrity to say something worthy about the topic. I had little sense of what I was walking into at the point of ticket purchase.
Arguendo, from Elevator Repair Service’s website:
“In Arguendo, ERS tackles Barnes v. Glen Theatre, a 1991 U.S. Supreme Court case. Brought by a group of go-go dancers who claimed a First Amendment right to dance totally nude, the case examines an Indiana law that banned public nudity. At oral argument, the Justices attempt to define dance, ponder nudity in opera houses vs. strip-clubs, and ask whether naked erotic dancing is artistic expression or immoral conduct.”
The play began with several journalists interviewing a go-go dancer who is watching the court case in support of the dancers. She explains that as a go-go dancer she agrees it is important that they are allowed to get naked versus scantily dressed due to the slant on artistic statement these changes in wardrobes inspire. A question one of the journalists asked her was did the men behave in inappropriate manners after the strip show? Her response was, and I’m paraphrasing, no, they were dance professionals not perceived as prostitutes. She noted that many were married and had children.
The play then moved into a Supreme Court trial setting and stayed there more or less. Elevator Repair Service did its research and the action of the play consisted of reading oral arguments, trial verbatim and interviews with justices from the trial. Worth noting about stage aesthetics is that as the actors recited legal arguments dressed as justices, transcripts of the Barnes v. Glen Theatre court records were plastered along the upstage wall in an array of small to large print fonts, the design by Ben Rubin and the Office for Creative Research.
It was mostly mesmerizing to observe how the actors, directed by John Collins, could turn the droll legalese into lyricism (with a special shout out to Ben Williams for the challenges of his roll), and re-imagine the lack of physical action of a court case into an absurd comedic dance fraught with disability, the actors rolling around in their chairs while dressed as Supreme Court justices. Two Supreme Court Justices, Sandra O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, were wonderfully portrayed by Susie Sokol.
The anticipated strip routine started with a lawyer, played by the venerated actor Mike Iveson, in verbal defense of the go-go dancers viewpoint, eventually dressing down to a thong, or possibly G-string, to then proceed to take all his clothes off. What I was struck by was how playful and lighthearted the dance was, how wholesome, versus lewd, Iveson looked while standing on the stage stark naked. The main evidence presented for the audience to judge, this armchair jurist voted naked was, without a doubt, genuine artistic expression. There was nothing disassociated/unduly lustful/immoral about Iveson’s dance.
Towards the end of Arguendo there is a scene with two justices, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Ginsberg, in a fashion conversation about their robes. We learn that while in South Africa, Justice Ginsberg bought some lace that the female judges have since added to the collars of their robes. Rehnquist explains that he put some decorative touches on his robe, four thin yellow stripes on the sleeves, not to be upstaged by the women. Watching the production, this scene, also based on real life events, seemed a bit out of place, a puzzling addition.
Over time contemplation of this tangent scene gave me a frame to detach my personal value system from a governmental regulatory one, a mental exercise that has a cathartic value … Dancing is not the only form of public nudity that America is extreme in prohibitions compared to many other Western cultures. Public nudity is banned in most states on the premise that it is inherently sexual. Just forget about babies. That Americans must, by law, wear a bathing suit in public, even if engaged in recreational activity in a natural environment–it could be argued government intervention on this topic is not altruistic, not based on democratic principles, but the oppression of spontaneous action even if harmless and involving consenting adults.
A product must be bought to comply to the law (or learn how to sew), in this case a bathing suit, the media shapers load the product with fashion competitiveness. Prices fluctuate based on quality and design to give the rich the edge. Body image is compromised, especially for women, who are the child bearers. Seems more productive, more happy, to lighten the load, shed our clothes and frolic hand in hand through forest paths, and let life happen. Wall Street unhinged, poisonous chemicals in foods, reckless fracking, massive NSA surveillance: it is for these destructive practices, and those like them, the United States legal system is not engaged. And yet a dancer takes off her clothes… What do these priorities have to do with preservation of human rights or the moral guideline of the literary U.S. Constitution?
I digress. Perhaps Arguendo’s greatest accomplishment is that it invites the audience to engage one’s own individual neglected long haul. I now ask myself is there even such a thing as a spoiler when the audience encounters an experimental theater piece with highly individual preoccupations? A celebration of personal freedom as well as playful inquiry, I could see Arguendo theatergoer thoughts unwinding on any variety of subjects: how exactly do earless frogs use lungs and hand signals to communicate, for example.
Barnes v. Glen Theatre, 1991.
Arguendo is currently on tour. The first rate cast at the Public (September 10 – October 27, 2013) included Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol and Ben Williams. John Collins, the director, is Elevator Repair Service’s artistic director.
Read Heather Waters’ theater and opera reviews in The Theatre Times.