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Elevator Repair Service explores notions of freedoms, logic of law in ‘Arguendo’

Elevator Repair Service stages 'Arguendo' based 1991 Supreme Court oral argument Barnes v. Glen Theatre which group exotic dancers citing

Elevator Repair Service stages "Arguendo," based on the 1991 Supreme Court oral argument in Barnes v. Glen Theatre, in which a group of exotic dancers, citing the First Amendment, challenged a ban on public nudity. | JOAN MARCUS PHOTO

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Elevator Repair Service in “Arguendo,” March 14-16. Museum of Contemprary Art Theater, 220 E. Chicago. $28 (312) 397-4010; mcachicago.org

In 1991, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Barnes v. Glen Theatre, in which a group of exotic dancers, citing the First Amendment, challenged a ban on public nudity.

The nuts, bolts and va-va-va-voom of the case were these: Glen Theatre and the Kitty Kat Lounge in South Bend, Indiana, operated entertainment establishments with totally nude dancers. An Indiana law regulating public nudity required dancers to wear “pasties” and a “G-string” when they performed. The Theatre and Lounge sued to stop enforcement of the statute.

Now, more than two decades later, the Elevator Repair Service (ERS)— the New York-based theater ensemble renowned for “Gatz,” a quirkily brilliant six-hour stage rendering of the full text of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” — has turned that Supreme Court case into “Arguendo” (from the Latin “for the sake of argument”).

The 80-minute piece, an ingeniously staged, almost entirely verbatim rendering of the oral arguments in the case, explores notions of free speech, performance, the unique language and logic of the Supreme Court, and the nature of that court’s justices themselves. Seen at New York’s Public Theatre last fall, “Arguendo” is coming to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art Theatre for four performances, March 14-16.

How did the ERS settle on such material?

“I’ve maintained an interest in the law and public policy since high school, and for a while even thought I might spare myself a career in the theater,” quipped John Collins, the director of “Arguendo,” who, along with a group of actors, founded the New York-based troupe 23 years ago. “About halfway through my freshman year in college I realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Then, about a decade ago, when we ran into a struggle over the rights to ‘Gatsby,’ I began diving into the literature on cases about fair use and copyright law. In the process, I came across a website that allows you to download the audio of the oral arguments made before the Supreme Court, and this set me on a hobby of collecting these arguments.”

“Constitutional law is not easy to grasp,” Collins admitted. “But there is a power and concision to it that intrigues me. And when this Kitty Kat Lounge piece popped up, it caught my interest in so many ways that I knew I wanted to put it on a stage one day. And I can tell you there are moments in this show when the audience erupts in laughter at the absurdity of the case, as when Justice Kennedy talks about an ‘adults only carwash’.”

As Collins sees it, the case raises these questions: Where is the borderline between high art and low art, and are strippers or “exotic dancers” taken less seriously than, say, the performers in ‘Hair,’ who also appear nude? And where do you draw the line between “performance” and “conduct”? (“Nudity itself is not inherently expressive conduct,” noted Justice Souter.)

“The attorneys on each side have 30 minutes to make their arguments, but I think anyone listening will be driven to expand the conversation,” says Collins. “The justices debate the definition of dance, the nature of nudity in opera houses versus nudity in strip clubs, and whether erotic dancing is artistic expression or a crime. And you can sense the tension in American law between the unquestioned freedom to express oneself without fear of retribution, and the moral code of the larger society.”

And yes, there is some nudity in this show which is recommended for “mature audiences.”)

“We had to tackle the matter of how we would do this, because the Supreme Court is an austere place where ideas and meaning are of the essence,” said Collins. “At the same time, WE are on a stage making theater, and we need to address the performing elements of the case, and what it means to perform naked.”

“We also got lucky. We found tape of an interview done outside the Court building, just as the advocates were speaking to the press after presenting their arguments. And out of nowhere, a young woman in a bright pink jacket came forward. She wasn’t involved in the case, but she was an exotic dancer from Michigan, and what she said was too irresistible to leave out, so we recreated the moment.”

Collins also wanted his actors to capture the performative elements of the justices.

“We dug around online, looking at photos and videos of interviews, trying to get their inflections and personality quirks. And we found interesting C-Span interviews with two female justices — Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — in which they talked about differentiating their robes from the men by wearing distinctive collars. Justice Renquist, a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, had gold stripes on HIS robe.”

As for the decision of the justices who heard the Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Collins explained: “The dancers lost. It was five to four in favor of the law. But among the majority there were three different opinions. Eight years later, in Pennsylvania, an almost identical case arose, and again the decision was in favor of the law banning public nudity, but in a very general way.”

Elevator Repair Service is already at work on several new pieces — a first-time “actual play” by Sybil Kempson, about Jane Bowles, the bohemian writer of the 1940s and ‘50s, as well as a small original musical and Collins’ first attempt at Shakespeare.



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