Friday, October 27, 2017

Stuck in the past, sticking to his guns: John Strand's "The Originalist" illuminates challenges to and from Antonin Scalia

Madison and Hamilton have long been silent: Antonin Scalia is their self-appointed mouthpiece.
About a dozen years ago, Joseph Polisi, president of the Juilliard School, invited luminaries in several fields to participate in a panel discussion at the school. I first read about this lively exchange in the Juilliard Journal (which still arrives in the mail, thanks to my sons' past studies there), and remembered how provocative one of the participants' contributions were. He was Antonin Scalia, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. His fellow panelists were Renee Fleming, Stephen Sondheim, and David McCullough.

The Juilliard Journal of that era not being near at hand, I rely on a quotation from the New York Times account to provide me with a way into consideration of "The Originalist," Indiana Repertory Theatre's Upperstage production of John Strand's play, which I saw Thursday evening.

"The program reads like some kind of weird I.Q. test: 'Which of the following is out of place: diva, author, composer, lawyer?"' the buoyant jurist began, before characteristically answering his own question: "The main business of a lawyer is to take the romance, the mystery, the irony, the ambiguity out of everything he touches."

Henry Woronicz and Ayanna Bria Bakari are electrifying in "The Originalist."
Whatever truth lies in that description of his profession, there is enough there to indicate the problem facing the playwright and any production of "The Originalist." That's because Scalia was able to fit that description all too well when considering the law. And the vehicle he used to remove all those wonderful humanizing things from everything he touched was his conviction that the Constitution is not a living document, but a dead one, whose very permanence depends upon reading its text the way its creators did in 1787.

Art, on the other hand, would be lost without recourse to romance, mystery, irony and ambiguity. Strand has seeded his drama with those qualities and does an admirable job of pitting the rigid, narrow-minded Scalia against a feisty clerk, a young woman of color with an impressive academic background. Henry Woronicz plays the formidable judge; Ayanna Bria Bakari, his chosen antagonist, who calls herself Cat and is eager to broaden her left-of-center outlook by serving a man known for his love of argument.

The vexing question remains, however, whether Scalia is an appealing enough character to carry a two-hour show. Conservatives doubtless don't have to work at "humanizing" this dogged originalist, a role that Scalia proudly took on and hoped to take to the Chief Justice's seat, only to suffer bitter disappointment. Liberals, among whom I count myself, are generous enough, I hope, to accept Scalia's breadth as a human being, albeit with some difficulty. His love of opera helps, though in the first scene, the black-robed judge blissfully conducts a recording of the brindisi (drinking song) from "La Traviata," a song that declares "everything in the world is folly that is not pleasure." Needless to say, that was never a guiding principle of Scalia when he was about  his "main business."

Jeb Burris manages well the difficult wax-figure role of stuffy, scheming Brad.
Strand has captured the justice's hard-edged charm, but many people prefer charm that's laced with a less corrosive wit. The tussles between Cat and Nino (as friends and family called him) are animated and deep-delving. They are directed by James Still with pacing that is almost invariably rapid.

Law jargon is necessarily a part of the dialogue, but you won't need to know terms like "certs" and "stare decisis" to appreciate the interaction of judge and clerk that Strand presents, and which Woronicz and Bakari so warmly embody. Strand's artistic freedom allows him to pitch the drama on more levels than mere argumentation, as lively as that is. We learn that Cat's father, so vital to her ambition and perseverance, is dying. How that plays out in the Cat/Nino relationship falls into the spoiler category, so I'll leave that alone. Suffice it to say that the dramatic ebb and flow was skillfully fleshed out in Woronicz's and Bakari's performances Thursday night.

Controversies that still roil the nation were particularly pertinent during the Supreme Court's 2011-2012 term, when "The Originalist" takes place. Same-sex marriage was a powderkeg issue, and Scalia assigns his brash intern the task of preparing what is sure to be his dissent. To complicate her task, the playwright brings in a confrontational eager beaver named Brad, who idolizes Scalia and has been molded by the Federalist Society, of which Scalia was faculty advisor during his University of Chicago days just before Ronald Reagan appointed him to the Supreme Court.

Though played with stalwart energy by Jeb Burris, his is a thankless task, as Strand seems to have loaded on him as much villainy as possible in an effort to elevate the man Brad idolizes. It works:  in contrast to his epigone, Scalia is almost saintly, or at least godlike, like Mozart's Sarastro (whom Scalia assuredly venerated) or at least like Shakespeare's Prospero (Cat's suggestion). The mutual respect and understanding that Cat and Nino achieve would be much less believable without the repulsive figure of Brad.

Reuben Lucas' stage picture is glowing and gilded, with large portraits of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, chief authors of the Federalist Papers, written to sell the new Constitution to the American public. There's one image over each of the doors that are primarily entrances to the judge's chambers. I was struck by how the doors mask those founders' mouths, a deliberate hint that both men, as Lucas' program note has it, "are ever present in this world and, yet, are silent."

Indeed, the Federalist Papers describe and promote a system that barely resembles today's United States. They are essential to any American's knowledge of their country's basis. They are the beginnings of the midrash to the secular Torah that is the U.S. Constitution. In Scalia's view, they were not to be superseded, however. No more midrashim!

And this is my main difficulty with "The Originalist" and the Scalia heritage. Originalism is little more than bigotry's pixie dust: If you sprinkle it over all your prejudices and received opinions, you look like the ultimate patriot. I can't see how interpreting even a founding document so generally distinguished as the Constitution should not give some relevance to changing circumstances and to "the romance, the mystery, the irony, and the ambiguity" that inevitably enter the precincts of law when justice has to be applied and executed in people's actual lives.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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