Saturday, October 20, 2018

Review - What the Constitution Means to Me

Everyone has been telling me that I needed to see Heidi Schreck's new play at New York Theatre Workshop, so I finally buckled down to get a ticket.  I'm embarrassed to admit I've never seen one of Heidi's plays before, but after the amazing experience of seeing What the Constitution Means to Me, I will be seeing every darn one of her plays from now on.

I didn't really know what to expect, because I hadn't read much of the advance press on the show.  I knew that Schreck performed the piece herself and I knew it was based on her life (in a way), but that's about it.  So when I say I was completely taken aback by the power and quality of the storytelling and the story, believe me.  At one point, Schreck charmingly says something like "It may seem like I'm rambling, but I'm not.  Contrary to popular belief, this piece has been very carefully constructed."  It got a HUGE laugh and was another terrific meta moment in a show full of them.

photo credit: Sara Krulwich
The show's conceit is that Schreck, when she was a teenager, used to travel to American Legion halls to compete in forensic competitions about the US Constitution in order to win prize money for college.  Apparently, she won so many of these competitions that she completely paid for her undergraduate degree.  In the years since, she has thought more about the Constitution and is coming back to it as an adult to try to figure out where and how it fits into her life, especially now in these times of political upheaval.  The first part of the show is a sort-of reenactment of those competitions - she doesn't actually play herself as a fifteen-year-old, but things start out as a good representation of those years.  Also in the cast is Mike Iveson, representing all the American Legion men who ran these competitions over the years.  We'll see more of him later, but at the top of the show, he explains the rules of the competitions to us, as well as the procedures that will take place.  He's our timekeeper and lowkey master of ceremonies.

Eventually, as Schreck gets further and further into talking about the Constitution and how it has affected generations of her family, the artifice of the teenage competitions falls away and we're now seeing an adult woman struggle with how this document has let her, and generations of women, continually down.  We hear about the Equal Protection Clause and the Castle Rock v Gonzalez Supreme Court trial.  We hear about Schreck's great-great-grandmother, who was shipped to Washington State after her great-great-grandfather ordered her from a catalog and who subsequently died at 36 in a mental hospital, diagnosis 'melancholia.'  We hear about years of cycles of abuse that the women in her family has suffered and how she has used these personal stories to realize that the Constitution isn't really designed to protect women (or people of color, or immigrants, or LGBTQ folks) at all.  We also hear from Mike Iveson and his story is just as heartbreaking.

photo credit: Joan Marcus
You would think a show that parses out the Constitution and several of its amendments would be dry and theoretical.  And it is so not.  The storytelling is genius, Schreck is a delightful storyteller, and I was so moved throughout the piece.  She has charm and wit and the pacing of the show is fantastic - she uses pauses and silence to very striking effect.  I was forced to think about this document, and our country, in a whole new way.  Each of her stories about women who had been let down by either the Constitution or the government in some way was so specific and yet so universal.  I was holding back tears many times throughout, but maybe most especially during the three bits of actual recorded conversations of Supreme Court justices.  You hear men talk so dryly and heartlessly about women's rights and women's bodies and how the word 'shall' doesn't necessarily mean 'shall', but they never talk about the women as people.  It was shocking to me.  The way the men kept clearing their throats, or coughing, when talking about birth control was completely telling.  Of course, the third bit of recording is of the glorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her famous quote about how many women should be on the Supreme Court, which was like a balm to the spirit.

The last part of the show is also genius - Schreck brings out a teenaged girl, about the same age as she was when she was winning these competitions, to do a live debate over whether or not we should abolish the Constitution and start over with a new one.  There are two girls that alternate in this role; I saw Rosdely Ciprian, who was whip-smart, funny, adorable, and I would vote for her for anything in a minute.  The debate was fascinating and I could see either side winning - we even got our own pocket copies of the Constitution so we could follow along and then take them home!  I could say a whole lot more about the show, or about my seat neighbors, who were millennial manspreading armrest hogs, but I think I'll err on the side of letting you experience the show for yourself.

Everything about the show, from the pre-show music, to the direction, to the set that was hysterically and horrifyingly accurate (how long can we look at rows and rows of photos of white men?!?!), to the sound design, was terrifically done.  What the Constitution Means to Me is a wonderfully enjoyable evening of theater and it's also an incredibly powerful piece of political resistance.  YOU SHOULD GO.  A woman telling her story and the story of other women is what we need right now.  We all need to tell our stories until finally someone hears us.  Until finally this country, our government, and the documents there to protect us, actually consider us one of 'we the people.'  The fact that this message is embedded inside a play written by a woman makes me incredibly proud.  Please go.  The run has just been extended, so there's no excuse to miss it.

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