Supreme Court nudity case fuels ‘Arguendo’

If the 23-year-old, New York-based experimental theater company Elevator Repair Service can mesmerize audiences with an eight-hour, verbatim-script staging of “The Great Gatsby” — as it did recently with “Gatz,” to great acclaim — it follows that an 80-minute theatricalization of a Supreme Court case, also presented word for word, ought to be a slam-dunk.

Co-commissioned by the Public Theater and other East Coast theaters, and performed at the Public, nationally and beyond, “Arguendo” marks the company’s San Francisco debut.

The performance consists almost entirely of arguments in a 1991 Supreme Court case, Barnes v. Glen Theatre, in which an Indiana strip club challenged a state law banning public nudity. The defendants used the First Amendment to posit that the club’s erotic dancers were entitled to perform in the altogether.

“It’s a conversation and debate that go to what I think are fascinating ambiguities inherent in live performance,” says ERS founder/artistic director John Collins. The judges were trying to distinguish between “conduct” and “performance,” he explains, but “Arguendo” is about deeper issues than would-be-naked strippers. Basically, it addresses a fundamental question: What is “art”?

To turn a legal proceeding into an entertaining, humorous, zany — and intellectually provocative — play, five actors (four of them longtime ERS members) represent the justices and a few extraneous characters. The ensemble attended some Supreme Court hearings, listened carefully to the recorded debate (the transcript of which served as the script) and also observed Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the rest wherever they could on the web.

In creatively choreographed movement, they wheel about the stage on swivel chairs. It’s a concept borrowed from wheelchair ice dancing, says Collins, whose artistic inspiration comes from New York’s famed Wooster Group and avant-garde theater auteur Richard Foreman.

Among the various production elements, video artist Ben Rubin created animated text projections.

According to Vin Knight, a 10-year veteran of ERS, working with the transcript was similar to tackling a classical play: “We spent time parsing it the way you’d do with Shakespeare.”

He portrays Scalia and others, observing them as much as possible on YouTube to co-opt archetypal gestures and posture. He also listened to the oral recordings for patterns of speech — “getting all that into muscle memory the way you would with a dance.”

Ultimately, the nine justices upheld the Indiana law. But after immersing themselves in the well-balanced legal arguments, both Collins and Knight say they would have sided with the dancers.

IF YOU GO

Arguendo

Where: Z Space, 450 Florida St., S.F.,

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $25 to $50

Contact: (866) 811-4111, www.zspace.org

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