Tour / Chicago Theater Review: ARGUENDO (Elevator Repair Service)

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by Erika Mikkalo on March 15, 2014

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


For the sake of argument (“arguendo”), let us consider g-strings as tools of oppression, and pasties as violations of our First Amendment rights. This was the perspective presented by some exotic dancers from South Bend, Indiana, in the 1991 United States Supreme Court case Barnes v. Glen Theatre. Elevator Repair Service, the New York group that achieved fame with Gatz, its six-hour staged interpretive reading of The Great Gatsby, selected this case as the inspiration for their current performance, Arguendo.

Scene from Elevator Repair Service's ARGUENDO

The dancers from the Glen Theatre and Kitty Kat Lounge sought to end an Indiana law banning public nudity, claiming aesthetic freedom – and in the case of one honest soul, increased earnings – as their goal. Supreme Court oral argument transcripts are generally not known for their pathos, but ERS does a splendid job of rendering reams of legalese into well-executed, thought-provoking absurdist theater, entertaining and educating as they present the vagaries of precedent and case law.

Scene from Elevator Repair Service's ARGUENDO.

John Collins, Artistic Director of ERS, initially searched through Supreme Court documents during the staging of Gatz, hoping that there were fair use grounds for them to read the novel over the objections of the Fitzgerald estate. He did not discover that they had grounds for fair use, but he did find the inspiration for this delightful 80-minute work.

Scene from Elevator Repair Service's ARGUENDO. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Supreme Court decisions could be considered a form of hypertext, with each reference to Case X v. Y connecting to yet another document that is many pages long. In addition to a dedicated cast displaying amazing mnemonic endurance – the case transcript was committed to memory by all, not provided by ear prompts – projection designer Ben Rubin from the Office for Creative Research manages to make the text a player by projecting a backdrop that functions like a giant microfiche, zooming in on one argument, pulling back to see a page, and then whirring to the next. An austere start gives way to increasing chaos, culminating in inevitable, but well-timed, nudity (recommended for “mature audiences”).

Scene from Elevator Repair Service's ARGUENDO - photo by Joan Marcus

Themes addressed include whether nudity is inherently expressive (Souter says no), obscenity, distinctions between public and private space, and the perhaps false hierarchy of “high” and “low” art (why is Hair acceptable and the Kitty Kat Lounge not?). Or as Justice Harlan stated in Cohen v. California, 43 U.S. (15), 1971, “it is nevertheless often true that one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric. Indeed, we think it is largely because governmental officials cannot make principled distinctions in this area that the Constitution leaves matters of taste and style so largely to the individual.” This is a performance to enjoy in terms of taste, style, execution, and content.

Scene from Elevator Repair Service's ARGUENDO - photo by Joan Marcus.

photos by Joan Marcus

Elevator Repair Service
Museum of Contemporary Art
22 E. Chicago Ave.
scheduled to end on March 16, 2014
for tickets call 312.397.4010 or visit

Scene from Elevator Repair Service's ARGUENDO. Photo by Joan Marcusthen plays:
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Washington DC
April 1 – 27, 2014
International Festival of Arts & Ideas
New Haven CT
June 18 – 22, 2014
for more info, visit

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