What makes something theater?

It’s a question that increasingly preoccupies me, even as my own artistic ambitions don’t seem to have flowed yet in that particular stream. The theater is a primary art form, like dance and painting and music, engaged in intuitively by small children, but it occupies a strange locus in a culture like ours defined by mediated experience, where people sitting across from each other at a table communicate by text. Thanks to Baumel’s Cost Disease, live theater keeps getting more and more expensive, but it also keeps getting more and precious. And as it does, theater artists necessarily ask more and more what is essential to that experience, and how to make what is essential more predominant.

I’ve written a lot about immersive theater as one direction theater can go to emphasize what makes it distinctive as an art form – the interaction between audience and performer. But there are plenty of other directions to go. And one of my favorite theater companies is exploring  an entirely different path.

The company is Elevator Repair Service, and their particular “thing” is exploring the relationship between text and performance. We tend to think of drama in terms of roles – characters that the actors pretend to be – and the text as the dialogue that these characters say. But there’s an older concept of theater according to which the text itself is the thing to be performed by the actor, the role referring merely to the selection of text that is a particular actor’s responsibility.

In their most celebrated work, GATZ, Elevator Repair Service scrambled these two conceptions of how theater works. GATZ was, on one level, an eight-hour reading of the entirety of The Great Gatsby. In that sense, it was a performance of  the text – not an adaptation of the text for performance, but the use of the actor’s voice to make the text come alive in our minds. But GATZ was much more than that, in that the actors didn’t speak the text as themselves; they spoke them as a set of characters. GATZ is set in a depressing basement office of some nondescript company in the age of the hulking desk-top PC. When said PCs won’t turn on one morning, one of the office grunts starts flipping through his Rolodex, and happens upon a copy of The Great Gatsby therein. He starts reading – and bit by bit, his office-mates join the game, passing the book around to take different parts.

What made GATZ so compelling was the combination of disjunctions and convergences between these office characters and the characters in the novel, the ways in which we saw them merging into one another and the ways in which we saw the yawning gap between them. That pattern, in turn, said something about our own relationships, as readers, to a book like The Great Gatsby – a classic, something from a different time, about people from a different society, but containing something universal that we relate to across that distance. When the burly, beer-bellied maintenance guy reads Tom Buchanan, a comment is being made about where Tom’s personality and views resonate in our world – what kind of man might think, hey, Tom’s actually got a point or two – particularly about Gatsby.

Well, ERS has a new show out now, not as profound in its effects as GATZ, but a whole lot of fun. And they continue to explore the intersection of text and performance, in this case with material that is explicitly about that intersection – and the question of when performance communicates meaning.

Their new piece, Arguendocurrently on view at the Public Theater in New York, is a performance of the oral argument before the Supreme Court in Barnes vs. Glen Theatre. Barnes was a First Amendment case, a suit brought by a group of go-go dancers challenging an Indiana law that banned public nudity, which had been construed to prohibit nude dancing at strip clubs.

The substance of the case is somewhat abstruse. As quickly emerges, the two key questions are whether nude dancing is, as such, expressive, and, if so, whether the Indiana ban on public nudity was an acceptable infringement on freedom of expression because it was content-neutral. The former provides occasion for a great deal of the humor. Can nudity itself be a message? If so, isn’t everything expressive? On the other hand, counsel isn’t suggesting that hanging a sign saying “this performance is intended to convey an erotic message” on each side of the stage would suddenly trigger First Amendment protection for the dance?

But the latter is really the heart of the case, and the plaintiff’s argument rested on the thin reed of an Indiana Supreme Court case opining that the ban on public nudity would not apply to works that necessarily would be protected by the First Amendment, such as, for example, a performance of the musical, Hair. I call that a thin reed because the statute itself is content-neutral, and I don’t see why the Supreme Court would be obliged to endorse the Indiana Supreme Court’s First Amendment analysis – if the Court found that a content-neutral statute were permitted to ban performances of Hair that included the nude scene, then the Indiana Supreme Court ruling would not, in fact, have carved out an exception for such a performance, and we’d be dealing with a content-neutral statute that had the effect of preventing certain types of speech or expression.

The audience, of course, is free to disagree about the merits of the case and the constitutional analysis – ERS’s point isn’t to convince the audience that the Indiana law was or was not constitutionally valid (though I suspect they were out, in part, to prove that it was silly). So what is their point – and why is the show so much fun?

First of all, the text itself is wonderfully theatrical, and the personalities involved are fascinating. You really get a sense of who Scalia, O’Connor, Rehnquist, White, and the other Justices are. And if the two lawyers appear to be more types, they are types that connect immediately to their respective positions on the law – the counsel for the defense buttoned-up and nervous (and wearing a dreadfully dead-looking toupee), the counsel for the plaintiff loose-limbed as a disco dancer and condescending as a, well, as a Harvard-trained lawyer (and wearing an exceptionally silly curly gray wig). You also see how many of the Justices – Scalia in particular – enjoy the process of argumentation, of whittling an argument down to its defensible proportions, irrespective of whether they are ultimately inclined for or against.

But more than that, it’s a fascinating experiment in performing a text. Trials are classic examples of real-life theater, with lawyers and judges playing prescribed roles and speaking in “unrealistic” rhetorical language. But ERS didn’t simply stage the trial. They messed with it, having actors jump from playing one Justice to another, or to one of the counselors, or to one of the members of the press (or a go-go dancer from Michigan who showed up to observe), doing impersonations that, like any good caricature, captured the character better than a pure imitation would. They acted out the emotional dynamics of a situation in expressionistic fashion – rolling their chairs close to counsel to make him uncomfortable, flipping through legal references on a huge screen behind, or, finally, stripping naked and dancing through a parodic rendition of Wilde’s Salome to bring the trial to a crescendo.

They didn’t stage the trial; they staged a play using the trial transcript as a text. But what is the play? As with GATZ, there are two layers – the text, which has its own theatrical power, and the performance, which demonstrates, with its every move and gesture, every swivel of a chair, adjustment of a scalp rug, or jettisoning of the undies, how essential performance as such is to communicating meaning (and hence knocking the stuffing out of the defense’s contention that it isn’t). This is a case for theater as a uniquely expressive medium and also for the Dadaist notion that every action is theater.

And then, when all has returned to stillness, there’s an epilogue that makes an even more compelling argument in favor of the expressive value of costume (or, presumably, lack thereof) than all the wildness at the trial. The epilogue is the transcript of a press conference that Justices Ginsburg and Rehnquist held the latter had a bunch of gold stripes added to the sleeves of his robes. They were an allusion to the robes worn in a production of Iolanthe that the Chief Justice had seen and, as Justice Ginsburg relates, an effort to increase the theatricality of the Chief Justice’s appearance so that he wouldn’t be upstaged by the female Justices, who had taken to wearing decorative collars with their robes. It’s a delightful little text, and beautifully acted, and makes its point quietly and more effectively than the wild dancing that preceded it could ever do.

But that’s just my aesthetic judgment. Not a legal or Constitutional one.

Arguendo will be performed at New York’s Public Theater through October 27th – and will then go on tour around the country. See here for dates in other cities.