by Hazen Cuyler
Commissioned by Arena Stage in 2013, The Originalist by John Strand surrounds Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The play, directed by Molly Smith, remounted at 59e59 thru August 19, is perhaps more relevant than ever before.
Antonin Scalia (Edward Gero) arrives on campus to lecture young, doting, conservative minds. The discourse runs smoothly until Cat (Tracy Ifeachor), a liberal African American student, confronts his traditional talking points only to quickly become his newest clerk. In just over an hour and a half, The Originalist glides through recent landmark cases leading to Scalia’s dissent in the 2013 United States v Windsor case which struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.
The infamous Supreme Court Judge is embodied by Washington DC based Edward Gero. As Scalia, he is effortlessly charming, distinctly cultured and frustratingly dogmatic. He sings opera to our applause, impersonates Ted Kennedy to our laughter and refuses to consider equal rights arguments regarding gay people and minorities. Mr. Gero’s respect for the Justice is transparent as he moves through a transformative, articulate and lovable performance. It is a masterful and surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a powerful and contradictory historical figure. His Scalia is a creature of habit. His brain heats and his body emboldens, assessing every word debated, calculating his opponent’s weakness. When comforting Cat, he listens with boundless compassion. We feel his heartbeat couple with her emotional well-being. A compelling duality, this emotional and intellectual life revealed by Mr. Gero is a major reason why you may wish to see this divisive production.
Scalia is a historical figure demanding a definitive form through voice, body and spirit. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be Antonin Scalia. Cat is a more elusive character who, at times, behaves as a mechanism devised to influence our polarized opinions of the Judge; making him appear more compassionate and his ideas more relatable. Cat is gifted at stirring backstory but no matter how desperate her history may become, these added details feel manipulated to construct a more sympathetic Scalia. However, in transcending this challenge, Ms. Ifeachor’s acting is like a virtuoso jazz musician. Her instincts command this fiery character. Her Cat is not a definitive form like Scalia. Instead, Cat is a culmination of quick, unfiltered, moment-to-moment, dynamic expressions. While debating her conservative colleague, Brad (played skillfully by Brett Mack), their powerful minds passionately veer from topic to topic, racing across the political map. Their exchange ranges from race relations to four percent of the founders being gay to throwing pizza at each other across the room. As Brad attempts to convert Cat to conservatism, the talented Ms. Ifeachor boldly parries each of Brad’s affronts like an agile fencer. Through Ms. Ifeachor we are gifted a challenging portrait of powerful liberalism, desperate enough to consider the center.
The staging is from Arena’s Artistic Director, Molly Smith. Dignified, simple and aside from one messy corner of a law library, it’s only the bare necessities. A chair, a desk, a rectangle of light on the ground for a hospital bed. Characters move through shadows and blocks of light. Like fragmented memories of our echoing civility, fading into history.
John Strand’s play is a brave and talented work. He successfully portrays Antonin Scalia as a kind human being; a daring accomplishment considering Scalia is often decried a monster. But Scalia was also very loved. And those opposing him were also condemned as monsters. Mr. Strand’s play is a discourse from two antagonistic ideologies, mixed in friendship, moving together toward compromise. To a center point. To a place without monsters. Or perhaps where monsters meet.
And onto the point. Why is this entering into our theatre consciousness? It’s New York City and the audience was certainly liberal. The recurrent outbursts were hints. This is a play about someone who liberals do not exactly appreciate. And yet the audience remained captivated. It’s the ideas this audience was hungry for. But it’s a great performance from two very different actors and it’s their exceptional performances which make the ideas accessible. We, in this time period have a hunger for dangerous perspectives and within a safe space we can contemplate frightening human perspectives. Not an angry text bubble on a phone. Not a charming and manipulative pundit. Not shouting facts at someone deaf to logic. Not eschewing compassion, comfortably clinging to cold facts. We blind monsters are beginning to see each other and recognize ourselves. And as we embrace others’ emotional reality, we are forced to face the facts of our shared existence.
Photos: Joan Marcus
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