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Dancing naked to the First Amendment

arguendoThere are few things in our Constitution that we cherish as highly as the first Amendment right to free speech.  We have the right to say bold and revolutionary things, the right to say silly and outlandish things, and the right to say reactionary and even cruel things.  It is why we can turn on TV and watch anything from “Game of Thrones” to “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.”

But does the first amendment give us the right to dance naked?

That was the subject of an actual Supreme Court case, and the comic troop known as the Elevator Repair Service is currently down at Woolly Mammoth for their take on this legal wrangling.  It is a strange and heady mix of documentary – most of the words are lifted from the actual Supreme Court arguments – and broad physical comedy.  Who knew Ruth Bader Ginsberg could be this funny?

For you legal eagles out there, this is the 1991 Supreme Court case known as Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc.  The case involves an adult nightclub in Indiana and the state passed a law prohibiting totally nude dancing in public.  The dancers complained, saying the law infringed on their freedom of speech, and the lower courts sometimes sided with the state and other times with the dancers.  On appeal, the case landed in the Supreme Court at the height of the so called Culture Wars, when William Rehnquist was Chief Justice and Clarice Thomas had not yet replaced Thurgood Marshall.

What the members of the Elevator Repair Service do is begin with a fairly serious take on the Supreme Court arguments and then veer more and more into surreal terrain.  They are a comedy group, after all, and the fact that the Court proceedings are audio recorded but not televised gives the actors a lot of leeway. 

Just as the justices stalk the lawyers with their questions, so they use their chairs as big wheels to zoom around the stage and physically stalk the arguers.  All this talk of nude dancing means that perhaps not everyone arguing before the court keeps their clothes on, and do not be surprised if a Supreme Court justice suddenly starts to bust a move.  Get down Antonio Scalia.

Wait until you see how the justices “decide” the verdict in their chambers.

The production includes very innovative use of projections.  There is a huge wall of text behind them and whenever someone makes a legal reference, the projection zooms into the reference on the screen.  But the justices can get bored with the proceedings and start messing with the board.  The text actually collapses on its side at one point thanks to the overly active justices.

It is very imaginative production and often quite hilarious, but there is a real legal argument to follow here.  Being the law, they make it unduly complicated – this is an adult nightclub after all – but there are important issues here.  Can the Indiana law be used to stop productions of “Hair” or “Equus” with their nude scenes?  If the state can say a rock concert is freedom of speech, but that freedom does not apply to the volume control, what’s the fuss about the dancers wearing a bare minimum of clothing?  As Justice Scalia says at one point, “how do you draw a line between Salome and the Kit Kat Club?”

Director John Collins begins the 80 minute one act slowly and then builds up an incredible amount of energy.  The five members of the Elevator Repair Service gamely jump into this hectic production.  An actor can play a different Supreme Court at any given moment and multiple actors can be a justice or lawyer in the twinkling of an eye.  Plus they can do all sorts of weird things on stage – is that Ginsberg and Souter having an intimate moment at one point?

Somehow it all remains clear and easy to follow.  It is one of the weirder cases ever brought before the Supreme Court, but one of the reasons you hear so little about the case is that it was a bitterly divided Court that rendered the verdict.  It is a very funny and creative production, but the issues are serious and in many ways still undecided.  The production manages to be both a civics lesson and knock about farce.

“Arguendo” continues at the Woolly Mammoth Theater through April 27.  For more information, call (202) 393-3939 or go online to http://www.woollymammoth.net.  

3 stars

By David Cannon

Mocovox Entertainment Critic                                          

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