Arguendo makes your brain want to explode. Then the show explodes for you, which is very nice of it.
The play, a major theatrical highlight of the 19th International Festival of Arts & Ideas, is the latest creation of Elevator Repair Service, the New York experimental theater troupe known for its Andy Kaufman-esque sense of humor and its intense attention to text. The play is being performed at Yale Rep as part of the festival.
ERS previously did Gatz, the six-hour stage adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby that captivated New York theater critics. One of its first shows (which I happened to see, back in the early ‘90s, and remember very fondly) was The Marx Brothers on Horseback Salad, based on an attempted collaboration between Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Salvador Dali.
The text being tested in Arguendo consists of legal arguments presented before the U.S. Supreme Court. A five-person cast divvies up the roles of the entire court, the lawyers on both sides, the media and a few interested observers.
Unlike in a lot of “experimental” theater these days, the action all stays tightly onstage. The presentation is highly physically but sharply stagebound. Everything’s argued within this stifling red-curtained box. The legal prattle circles around and around, settling on certain themes. But the justices circle around two, in well-oiled swivel chairs.
The downtown New Haven skatepunk contingent should see this show just for the sight of three adults in judicial gowns whisking down ramps in those chairs.
The case at hand is Barnes v. Glen Theatre, which in the annals of Freedom of Speech and obscenity rulings is not particularly important. It’s a great case to dramatize, however, because of the number of prior, much more important rulings it cites—and for the obvious visuals it brings to mind.
The Glen Theatre was a nudie dance club in South Bend (nudge, nudge) that wanted its performers to have the right to dance fully nude. The State of Indiana insisted that all dancers wear at least pasties and g-strings. As Arguendo wends on, it blurs the learned dialogue about the rights of expression with the actual form of expression being discussed. Lawyers and judges are given outsized tics and quirks and become dancers themselves.
Some of the greatest artistry in Arguendo is accomplished by those who designed the projections, videos, lighting and computer software that allows the actors’ arguments to be augmented with massive swaths of printed text. A lawyer mentions case precedent, and the text whirls behind him to pinpoint the precise case example. You can even read along. The sheer amount of (literal) background research used to build this show is astonishing. Arguendo doesn’t just show you the intensity of legal arguments. It illustrates the grandness of scholarship.
The play is direct. It piles arguments upon interjections upon recitations until the sheer mass of verbiage and legal contents overwhelms. The visual accompaniments to the legalese build in fervor. Controlled chaos ensues. Then there’s a much-needed epilogue, a calming wind-down period so we can screw our heads back on again.
The International Festival of Arts & Ideas has graciously offered talkbacks after every performance of Arguendo, featuring noted lawyers and legal scholars. Following the sixth and final performance at 1 p.m. on June 22, there’s a fuller panel discussion featuring Sandra Staub of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut and Emily Bazelon, the Slate magazine senior editor who served as a consultant to Elevator Repair Service when Arguendo was first being devised.
Not sure that, with all those Sam Waterson/Richard Belzer TV shows, anybody thinks of the law as stuffy or dull anymore. Arguendo begins with the concept that it’s fascinating, to regular folks as much as to the highest-ranking judges in the land. Elevator Repair Service ends up demonstrating that the law can be not just inspirational but fantastical. It can lead you to dream states and altered consciousnesses. It builds up and it strips down and it nails its argument.
For a moment on Tuesday, it looked like rain. On Wednesday, it poured all morning. At most previous Arts & Ideas festivals, this would’ve been a major headache. That’s because for the first decade and a half of its existence the festival had a tradition of “Courtyard Concerts,” events that took place on weekdays in such venues at the Yale Law School courtyard and Branford College courtyard.
Who played there? Acts on the rarefied level of vocalist Cesaria Evora, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Miguel Zenon, South Africa’s Abdullah Ibrahim Trio, Denmark’s Pierre Dorge & New Jungle Orchestra, The Kronos Quartet, Chinese opera singers and literally dozens more. The music wafted in the open breeze. The courtyard concerts were indeed thrilling, but it was always heartbreaking when one got rained out. Some years several got rained out. So it was sad but understandable when the courtyard concerts got taken out of the A&I mix altogether a couple of festivals ago. Now the planners have to worry about wet weather in only one place: New Haven Green. That’s enough right there.
Current reports (I like Weatherbug) suggest a clear bright weekend on the Green for Dianne Reeves & the New Haven Symphony Orchestra (Saturday) and Brandy Clark & Bronze Radio Returns (Sunday), not to mention all those walking tours and bike tours and Family Stage acts. Next Tuesday and Wednesday, however? Could be thunderstorms. Those Courtyard Concerts really were courting disaster.