The Originalist


In the midst of the flutter about Trump’s upcoming Supreme Court appointment, The Originalist, about the late Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, is making its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters. Directed by Molly Smith, artistic director of the Arena Stage, where it was developed, and performed in March 2015, it digs into the nature of our contemporary dialogue and the polarizing way in which it has evolved.

Frightening as that is, the lives of our judges hold up the mirror to society. That the aging of our Supreme Court Justices poses a threat to the stability of that monolithic system has been an issue for a long time. Of course, it prompts us to ponder about the nine judges who, in a certain sense, rule our fate. And it sells tickets to documentaries, such as RBG.

In The Originalist, Scalia, the anchor of conservative jurisprudence until his death in 2016, is deftly portrayed by Edward Gero. A man of breadth, possessing an ethical and humanistic nature, Scalia’s intense intellect and sly wit bring this portrait into focus. His personal life, including his upbringing as the child of immigrants, his 54-year marriage, and nine children is presented.

That Scalia loved the opera is a gift to the audience of John Strand’s new play. Chandeliers, from the stage to the audience, embroider a minimalist set (designed by Misha Kachman). More important, the works of Verdi, Handel, and Mozart that highlight scene transitions (sound design by Eric Shimelonis) are thrilling in and of themselves.

Neither a docudrama, nor a work of fiction, the titular subject is originalism, the literal interpretation of the Constitution. That it is not a living document that can be unhinged by time and social change, or fashion, explains Scalia’s dissenting views on civil rights legislation during his 30 years on the Supreme Court, from 1986 to 2016.

That Strand delves into each of Scalia’s decisions with clarity and insight makes this an extremely interesting subject. The play covers such essential cases as Roe v. Wade and Affirmative Action, both of which he opposed, the right to bear arms, which he defended, and his objection to Windsor — overturning the Defense of Marriage Act. His decisions were based on upholding the work of the original authors of the Constitution. It’s the explanation, here, which is invaluable to an understanding of conservative sentiment.

These opinions are explored in sparring dialogues between Scalia and the young woman who becomes his clerk. With Cat (Tracy Ifeachor), a young African American woman and recent Harvard Law School graduate, Strand builds an endearing relationship through which Scalia’s conservative views and Cat’s progressive ideology are clearly defined. And it speaks to the point of the play . . . the need to work for a middle ground, and to meld the polarizing situation that prevails.

To that end, Cat is an appealing, assertive, and vulnerable protegee. “Every once in a while, I like to have a liberal round,” Scalia tells her. “It reminds me of how right I am.” His personal and professional commitment to her are unbounded by their legal opinions. Indeed, as both the film, RBG, and this play point out, Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with their opposite opinions in court, remained very dear friends and colleagues.

Challenging Cat’s position, her old law school rival, a conservative white bred attorney, Brad (Brett Mack), arrives later in the 95-minute, sans intermission, production. In the hope of replacing her as Scalia’s clerk, he becomes an antagonist, a snake really. But his opinion is valued by Scalia, who seeks his support in presenting his dissenting view on The United States v. Windsor.

It’s Brad who posits a threatening perception, foreshadowing the 2016 election. He remarks, “Four more years of Obama, and this country will move so far to the right.”

Gero’s performance is warm, displaying Scalia’s compassionate nature and his sharp tongue. He even looks like Scalia. And he brings a physical life to the stage that is powerful.

The Saintliness of Margery Kempe

In Austin Pendleton’s inventive revival of The Saintliness of Margery Kempe, themes of saintliness and betrayal, good faith and orthodoxy, cast an odd perspective on our contemporary ills. Regardless, the production is broadly comedic in reinventing the picaresque events of Kempe’s trajectory, from bored housewife, to sainthood, and beyond.

As portrayed here by Andrus Nichols, Kempe is more of a scandal than a success. In Nichols’s rendering, she is an anomaly — a cross between reckless pioneer and invidious fake. Nichols also captures her relentless optimism, and extraordinary self-confidence. And she feigns weeping, a characteristic for which the historical Kempe was reputed. In fact, her constant weeping, prompted by what we would call postpartum depression today, characterized her as a major irritant.

Leaving her lascivious husband John (Jason O’Connell), and her six children, played by the ensemble cast members, she strikes out for intellectual freedom, and sainthood. Her pilgrimage takes her to Jerusalem, where she meets with rejection from her fellow travelers and the religious establishment.

Historically, Kempe was considered an oddity and a madwoman. A religious mystic of the Middle Ages, she reported visions of Jesus Christ, visitations with God, and claims to have heard heavenly music that made her weep. And she was tried for heresy.

As a parable, the repeated phrase, “I saw it with my own two eyes” is a provocative one in the context of our time. Discredited and marginalized for reporting her visions, Kempe was incapable of providing the required proof of her sainthood.

But the story also reads in other ways, especially at a time when fact checking is de rigueur. Indeed, this Kempe has no shame in falsifying information. She is single-minded in advancing her case, and in confronting the establishment.

The Book of Margery Kempe, her most significant contribution, is considered by some the first autobiography, and by others a work of fiction. Regardless, her book explores aspects of the society in which she lived. Questions of authorship also arise, as Kempe claimed to be illiterate. Here, in John Wulp’s 1953 stage adaptation, she employs a scribe to record her story.

As a romp through the Middle Ages, the production is spirited and energetic. In addition to Nichols’s incorrigible Margery, Jason O’Connell has a robust comedic presence. A handful of actors slyly morph into the many characters that Margery Kempe encounters. I’m happy to report, they haven’t grown stale through the centuries.

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