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Theater: 'Arguendo' offers naked justice for go-go dancers

We spoke with John Collins, artistic director of Elevator Repair Service, about the process of developing Supreme Court play "Arguendo."

Arguendo Public Theater Things get a little wild in courtroom drama "Arguendo" — you just wouldn't know it from the serious posturing at first.
Credit: Joan Marcus

"Arguendo" is the newest work from Elevator Repair Service, a collaborative theater ensemble founded in 1991 by Artistic Director John Collins. ERS is known for creating its performances from literature and found text. Its most critically acclaimed show, "Gatz" (an entrancing eight-hour staging of "The Great Gatsby"), is what unintentionally led Collins to the company's found text for "Arguendo," the story of go-go dancers in Indiana who were sued for nudity in accordance with public decency laws.

Collins reveals, “We were having trouble securing the rights [to "The Great Gatsby"] and trying to understand whether or not we needed permission.” In his search for answers, he immersed himself in law and stumbled upon a website called Oyez.org where anyone can download complete transcripts of Supreme Court cases. The site comes complete with a multimedia feed that highlights the text as it’s being spoken on the real courtroom recording. “Somewhere in all that downloading, I came across Barnes v. Glen Theatre.”

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For eight years, it was on his playlist. Collins knew that this was the case he wanted to bring to the stage. “I always thought of staging it or reading it aloud on stage. The arguments are entertaining on the one end — and on the other end, they’re intellectually compelling.”

The Supreme Court arguments for Barnes v. Glen Theatre became the script. And ERS began transforming the sometimes-dry intellectual debate into an engrossing performance. In "Arguendo," the conversation is complicated: Is dancing protected under the First Amendment as free speech? Do the dancers have the right of artistic expression?

The play references an opera early in the argument, positing that state law says you can be naked if you were singing "Salome" onstage, but not naked if you’re go-go dancing. “We had this music from that opera and started playing with it. It just turned out to be a great way of building our last couple of scenes,” Collins says, adding, “We just found it irresistible in a way, as performers to get in there and test [out nude dancing] live. There’s only a certain amount that you can talk about a kind of performance within a performance and not just go there.” The show escalates from a vaguely realistic courtroom ambiance to an increasingly intense and surreal explosion. Those scenes hit a crescendo of wild dancing — yes, sometimes entirely nude — as the final arguments are presented to the judges.

We hope ERS will find a way to entertainingly dissemble the government shutdown next — nudity optional, of course.

'Arguendo'
Through Oct. 27
The Public Theater,
425 Lafayette St.
$66.50-$76.50
www.publictheater.org

 
 
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