Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

Also see Susan's reviews of The Thousandth Night and Camp David

The New York City-based theater company Elevator Repair Service (ERS) finds theatrical magic in unlikely places: Gatz, which brought fame to the company, runs six hours and uses as its text the complete novel The Great Gatsby. Now, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has brought ERS to Washington with its 70-minute piece Arguendo, based on the transcripts of a U.S. Supreme Court case. Unfortunately, it's more gimmicky than satisfying.

The 1991 case in question, Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc., concerns whether exotic dancers in two Indiana clubs have the right to perform nude. The state's public nudity law says no and requires that the dancers wear pasties and G-strings. It's no spoiler to announce at the beginning that the Supreme Court rules in favor of the state, that the five justices on that side of the issue release three separate opinions rather than a single concurrence.

Elevator Repair Service uses five hard-working actors to portray, among others, the nine Supreme Court justices, a gang of television reporters, and the opposing counsels (the petitioner, or plaintiff, is played by two different actors in different scenes, wearing the same wig and glasses). The words all come from the transcript, though director John Collins does liven things up occasionally—at least it doesn't seem likely that the justices would compete in rolling-chair races while hearing arguments. Most strikingly, video designer Ben Rubin has created a projection of relevant legal text for the background; this projection becomes a character in its own right, zeroing in on a specific section or swooping rapidly from one paragraph to another.

The questions are intriguing, the main one being whether the right to free speech applies to a nonverbal medium such as dance. This leads to the question of whether performing nude is a statement in and of itself or simply an excuse for public nudity, and the issue of tone: legal interpretation of the Indiana law specifically allows nudity in "highbrow" performances such as opera. The problem in this production is that, with so many words, and so much busy behavior onstage, the end result is audience exhaustion.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
April 1st - 27th
Created and performed by Elevator Repair Service
Rebecca Jackson: Maggie Hoffman
TV Reporters: Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol, Ben Williams
Justices of the Supreme Court (1990 Term): Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol, Ben Williams
Mr. Uhl (Part 1): Ben Williams
Supreme Court Aide: Maggie Hoffman
Mr. Ennis: Mike Iveson
Mr. Uhl (Part 2): Vin Knight
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Susie Sokol
Directed by John Collins
641 D St. N.W., Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-393-3939 or