Friday, November 7, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "Problems of the Text" (on Elevator Repair Services' Arguendo)

problems of the text
by Douglas Messerli

Elevator Repair Service Arguendo / Los Angeles, Redcat Theater (the Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theater) in the Walt Disney Concert Hall / the performance I saw was on opening night, November 6, 2014

The Elevator Repair Service theater company—although described in the program as creating “original works for live theater with an ongoing ensemble”—clearly prefers to use extant texts, as in last year’s “reading” of The Great Gatsby, presented as Gatz, and in their 2008 production of The Sound and the Fury, works which they perform in ways that decontextualize the originals and presumably refresh their meanings or transform our previous interpretations. Of course,  significant auteur-based directors such as Peter Sellars have been doing this for years, rethinking and reinventing the standard repertoire of plays, operas, and other compositions in productions that sometimes radically re-reposition the original intentions and meanings of the chosen texts. And more recently, writers such as Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place have done something similar in their “literary” publications, such as—in Goldsmith’s case—reprinting an entire issue of The New York Times in a one read-through  version published in a single volume, which helps to create the sense of varying articles serving  like chapters in a long, postmodern-like fiction, or gathering months of weather reports and related radio commentary as if they might be read as a kind of journal or diary of cultural events—or in the case of Place—presenting court documents so that they read as a kind of soap-opera or melodrama about various encounters between women and men.
      In the work I saw last night at The Walt Disney Concert Hall’s Redcat Theater (the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), Arguendo, uses court documents from the case of Barnes v. Glen Theatre, a 1991 Supreme Court hearing about nude dancing in the state of Indiana. Applying the actual words, as well as hems, haws, hacks, and sometimes incoherent interruptions of the Supreme Court justices of that term—William H. Rehnquist, Byron R. White, Thurgood Marshall, Harry A. Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and David H. Souter, plus the legal arguments of Mr. Uhl (for the Petitioner) and Mr. Ennis (for the Respondent)—the company has great fun imagining the internal thinking of the various speakers as they throw out various contradicting and sometimes shockingly unpredictable comments (particularly given what we know of the general viewpoints of individuals such as Scalia, Kennedy, Rehnquist and others today) for “arguendos” sake, “for the sake of argument.”
      Much of this makes for quite spritely fun, as the justices, all played by three office-chair-bound actors, who, like their arguments, shift and roll across space at the same time that director John Collins and video designer Ben Rubin roll vast pages of previous decisions across the back wall and floor like so much literary confetti. The often nonplussed lawyers attempt to present their cases against the backdrop of the court justices, often quite hilariously, querying and challenging former lower-court decisions, while simultaneously attempting to determine, in minute detail, just what constitutes a message in a nude dance and how such “messages” differ from similar expressions in higher art forms such as opera or theatrical productions. Scalia, in particular, seems nearly obsessed with the nudity in Richard Strauss’ Salome.
     At the very crux of several of the arguments is a seeming inability of previous courts to be able to comprehend that expression through dance (what all describe as “performance dance,” as if all dance might not be performative) may be as significant as expression through language or through musical performance. Somehow dance has not been given the same leniency in relationship with First Amendment rights, we perceive, as other forms of art, and, therefore, “nude” dancing is not seen as a statement of significance in the same way that Henry Miller might speak about nudity or a rock band might comment on such behavior in their songs and lyrics.
      Recognizing this fine point of distinction, the company often moves the judges and other figures across the stage as if they were all in a grand ballet. Similarly, the lawyer for the nude bookstore, Mr. Ennis (Mike Iveson) gradually moves from partial undress (the male equivalent of pasties and g-string) to complete nudity—permissible within a stage play such as Arguendo, while, given the final court decision, apparently still not permissible, in Indiana at least, in a room full of men positioned behind a shared pane of glass (the concept of a “shared pane of glass” is of utter importance in this manner, since a dancer performing nude before a single customer behind a piece of glass would be permitted).

      All of this wild deconstruction of court documents, in the hands of the Elevator Repair Service, provides for a kind of heady amusement—at least for a while. But over the short duration of this performance, it suddenly dawns on us that, despite the absurd nit-picking differentiations between the desire for expression and the message we perceive is that a far more serious issue about the very difference between actor and responder, between community notions of morality and personal expression and the significance of those values, without the possibility that this theatrical group might be able to pause for a moment to explore them. At the heart of these questions also lie profound issues concerning what is natural, or even concerning what nature is itself. Finally, we can only ask, why does nudity (and thousands of other things relating to our bodies) so frighten us? Why are so many the audience even giggling even as I menatally noted this, at Mike Iveson’s rather unattractive—certainly not sexually alluring—nude body?
      What the justices are doing in their arguendo may be quite ridiculous on the surface, but if one truly contemplates the substance of those law-based arguments, we realize that the whole matter exists in a kind self-created maze of impenetrable realities that the law, because of its limited language, is simply unable to engage. In short, the language the justices are using cannot properly focus on the very issues wherein such seemingly trivial things truly do matter. And, in satirizing of what has already been utterly trivialized, the actors and the plays creators gradually reveal themselves as being as highly unoriginal as the justices had been, locked away in their thousands of pages of case law.
     In short, in watching this otherwise humorous bagatelle, I graudally came to perceive the real problem was what might be described as a kind of elevation of unoriginality.  Given the nature of the preconceived text one can only work to reveal what one sees as its already pre-existent truths—the role often taken on by conservative pedants, who represent such texts as sacred fact—or by more liberaral commentators such as the this theater company to challenge and mock such texts, exposing their flaws of logic through humor.
      An original writer, on the other hand, might be able to explore the primary text in a way that offers a kind of amelioration between these two extremes, considering what may be perceived of as value while simultaneously questioning and challenging the meanings and logic of those very codes of behavior. The original writer might even have found another route into this serious issue of personal rights which our state and nation often feel compelled to delimit. Given the extremes in which our country has been willing to go in order to delimit those freedoms, as Edward Snowden and others have revealed in the past few years, perhaps a wink and a nod, a giggle and wiggle are simply not enough. Both my theater-going companion, Deborah Meadows, and I, accordingly, walked away a bit saddened by what I am certain others saw as a joyously raucous attack.

Los Angeles, November 7, 2014

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