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Bringing the theater of the Supreme Court to the stage

March 20, 2015 at 6:20 PM EST
To research his latest role, actor Edward Gero had to go to court: the Supreme Court. His character? Real-life Justice Antonin Scalia. But the new play “The Originalist” is more than a portrait of the famously combative leader of the court’s conservative wing. It’s also a story about the polarization of American politics and bridging the gap. Jeffrey Brown reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: The audience is the judge in the case of Scalia vs. Scalia, a portrait of the Supreme Court justice opening tonight at Washington’s Arena Stage.

Jeffrey Brown has our look.

EDWARD GERO, “The Originalist”: The court has been my theater, and I have the costumes.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the new play “The Originalist,” the first thing you notice about actor Edward Gero is his striking physical resemblance to the character he’s playing, the real-life Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

EDWARD GERO: I tell people what they don’t want to hear. That’s also what makes me a monster. That’s how half the country see me, aggressive, combative, law and order conservative. Other half sees me as a hero, aggressive, combative, law and order conservative. Which am I?

JEFFREY BROWN: As it happens, both the justice and the actor trace their heritage to nearby villages in Southern Italy. Both are from New Jersey, raised in Catholic homes and schools.

To really be Scalia, all Gero had to do was take a short ride over to the Supreme Court, to watch the justice in action to get the mannerisms down.

EDWARD GERO: He sort of closes his eyes a little bit and heightens his sense of listening.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, show me. Show me.

EDWARD GERO: Well, you know, he will — he will listen, and then when he hears something, then he will pounce, right? So he sort of gathers up and searching for the right word or for the logic of the argument. Then, once he grabs onto it, he will launch and have a question.

JEFFREY BROWN: Antonin Scalia, of course, is the famously combative leader of the court’s conservative wing, and currently its longest-serving member.

A lover of opera, which the play uses to great effect, and operatic himself in both charm and bluster, he’s an intellectual powerhouse.

EDWARD GERO: Look, I’m not an ideologue. I am an originalist.

JEFFREY BROWN: And a firm proponent that judges should look only to the original text and meaning of the Constitution.

EDWARD GERO: To interpret the Constitution as it is written and as it was understood when the authors crafted the original document. It’s as important as that. Now, the other side of the argument is obvious and wrong. The Constitution is a living document. It must change with the times. Nonsense. Society changes. Fashion changes. The Constitution stands.

JEFFREY BROWN: Playwright John Strand says he was attracted to Scalia’s big personality, but even more to his central place in so many issues in today’s public life.

JOHN STRAND, Playwright, “The Originalist”: I think most people, if they saw that there was a play with Justice Scalia as the main character done at a theater in the United States, they’d expect to see perhaps a hatchet job on the justice, because, sure…

JEFFREY BROWN: You were conscious of that?

JOHN STRAND: Oh, very conscious of that, and it was never my intention to do that. I think that would be childish.

I’m much more interested in exploring who he is, and what his views are, and why came to those views.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, what Strand and director Molly Smith say they are examining here is the polarization of American politics today.

MOLLY SMITH, Artistic Director, Arena Stage: And I think we are now in a place where audiences and where artists are really interested in the political system. Why? Because everybody sees it is broken. How can we fix it? How can we present, produce plays on stage that are about this subject?

JEFFREY BROWN: The play explores this by introducing a liberal law clerk played by Kerry Warren. She’s a fictional character, but Scalia has on occasion hired liberal clerks. She’s the opposite of Scalia in every way, excerpt in her fierceness.

KERRY WARREN, Actress: You are probably the most polarizing figure in American civic life.

EDWARD GERO: Is that how you imagine a law clerk speaks to a Supreme Court justice? Probably? I hold the title, thank you very much. Strike the probably. Have you any other honesty to inflict?

KERRY WARREN: Yes, sir.

EDWARD GERO: Well?

KERRY WARREN: Sir, I detest your rulings on just about every important topic, abortion, gay marriage, gun rights, executive privilege

EDWARD GERO: Affirmative action.

KERRY WARREN: Affirmative action, campaign financing, especially Citizens United, capital punishment, the Florida recount, and others.

EDWARD GERO: Detest?

KERRY WARREN: Disagree with strongly?

EDWARD GERO: Detest is good. Let it stand.

KERRY WARREN: Yes, sir. Thank you. Also…

EDWARD GERO: Oh, there’s more.

KERRY WARREN: You’re a monster.

EDWARD GERO: Do you have a habit of crossing the line, Miss?

KERRY WARREN: I don’t mean to be disrespectful, sir. But monster was your term. I need to learn about monsters.

EDWARD GERO: Why?

KERRY WARREN: Because we most fear what we don’t understand.

JEFFREY BROWN: The two spar intellectually, but soon enough with respect, even developing a friendship.

JOHN STRAND: I thought, if we have people who are at polar opposites politically and let’s say even culturally, socially, then we have got the possibility of exploring through those two characters how you take a step toward the other person with whom you disagree.

JEFFREY BROWN: Actor Edward Gero has long combined verbal jousting and adherence to historical texts through his many years on stage performing Shakespeare.

As I was watching you do this, the power and majesty often in Shakespeare plays, and here you are, the power and majesty, the Supreme Court.

EDWARD GERO: Right. There’s no question they’re analogous.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

EDWARD GERO: The focus on language and the listening. The people who inhabit these plays of Shakespeare bear a great respect for the speaker. They’re searching for the truth of the argument.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does Scalia strike you as any particular Shakespearian character?

EDWARD GERO: Well, you know he played Macbeth, so — and I think he’s really proud of having done that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Over lunch recently, Gero got to talk to Scalia about Shakespeare and more, though not about politics or the play, he insists.

And, as he showed us in his dressing room, he was able to pick up a few more tips for playing the justice.

EDWARD GERO: I love the sort of — this pursing of the — through here. You see it again here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

For all the human focus in “The Originalist,” there’s a lot of actual law, much of it centered on a 2013 landmark ruling by the court on gay marriage. The play uses Scalia’s own words from speeches and opinions. People who know him, lawyers, former clerks, legal reporters, helped ensure a level of accuracy and authenticity.

As to the originalist himself, there’s no word yet as to whether Justice Scalia will attend this play, in which he himself is central to the debate.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown at the Arena Stage in Washington.

 

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