Review: “The Originalist” at the Pasadena Playhouse- A Must See Production
Sparring with Scalia
Review: The Originalist at the Pasadena Playhouse
Leticia Marie Sanchez
All photography ©2017 Leticia Marie Sanchez
In Ancient Greece, theater played a central role in keeping citizens of the city-state politically informed. John Strand’s The Originalist, which is currently playing at the Pasadena Playhouse, harkens back to the days of civic-minded theater by delving into political issues and polemics in a way that is equally thought-provoking and entertaining. Beyond the highly engaging Beatrice and Benedick-like sparring of the two talented leads (Edward Gero as uber-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia and Jade Wheeler as “flaming liberal” Supreme Court Clerk Cat), the play probes a deeper philosophical issue. In his program notes, playwright John Strand asks, “How did we become so polarized that we see our political opponents as demons? What happened to the political middle?” The timely play delves into political divergences through its compelling actors, operatic motifs, and humor in a lively verbal jousting match.
The play’s premise is that brash, intimidating conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia hires outspoken liberal young clerk Cat. In the play, Scalia boasts, “I like to have a liberal around to remind me how right I am.” Scalia apparently would hire “counter-clerks” to solidify his own views while writing court opinion. A core strength of the play is the acting by leads Edward Gero and Jade Wheeler. The narrative essentially unfolds as a philosophical tug of war, and Wheeler gives as good as she gets, throwing in exceptional punches as the earnest idealist with the chutzpah to challenge the heavyweight. The play includes a brief appearance by Brett Mack as Brad, the fawning obsequious foil (the Supreme Court clerk you love to hate) to Cat’s straight-shooting sparring partner. But other than Brad’s cameo in conservatism, the entire play focuses solely on the formidable acting chops of Gero and Wheeler cast with very little in the way of set enhancements, and the duo successfully keeps the audience engaged for the duration, which is also a testament to Strand’s zinger-filled writing.
Another strength of The Originalist, lies in its operatic motif. The Originalist opens dramatically with the music of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” In real-life Scalia was an opera fanatic who performed with the Washington Opera in Ariadne Auf Naxos with his (surprising) buddy Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. In the play, Scalia compares opera to the Constitution. “A great opera must always be what it is—the notes are the notes then, now, and a hundred years from now…That is also my opinion of the Constitution.” In that line, Scalia encapsulates his position as an Originalist. In addition to legal philosophy, the play explores politics as theatre. Cat tells Scalia that he is a “a showman at heart,” one who enjoys the verbal wrangling of court proceedings. At one point Scalia reenacts his senate confirmation hearings, with Gero humorously mimicking the accents of Senators Kennedy and Strom Thurmond as he relished the clash with gusto, “It’s political theater…the opera of my confirmation.”
Humor and double entendres also add to the fast-paced nature of The Originalist. When Cat asks Scalia how Justice Ginsberg keeps from strangling him, he quips. “That’s what they mean by Judicial Restraint.” In another scene, Scalia recalls that someone named his pet fish after him. When Scalia asked the person if they had any another pet fish named after Supreme Court Justices, the reply was “No, Scalia ate them all.”
The play humanizes a polarizing figure, particularly his regret at not becoming Chief Justice. Scalia reveals to Cat that he was told by the Bush administration. “You would be as popular as a second invasion of Baghdad.” Dark minor chords are emitted from Scalia’s usually boisterous blustery self, as he bitterly remarks, “Did he (George W. Bush) forget the recount crisis?”
At the play’s conclusion, the graduating clerk announces that she will be leaving her role not for a plum corporate position but to engage in a grassroots effort to bring polarized Americans closer together. Cat observes, “There is a middle, and we’re all hiding in our bunkers.” She remarks that the current state of dialogue is “poisonous,” to which anyone currently fatigued from the political vitriol on Facebook News Feeds can attest. “Half the country sees me as a monster,” Scalia declares. In a year of polarizing figures, Strand’s play is particularly salient. The only way to move past polarization is to take a lesson from the Greeks: use plays like the Originalist as a catalyst for dialogue and civic engagement.
Finally, the play is extremely relevant to the current events that unfold daily. “We are everywhere now,” Scalia warns Cat about Originalists. And Scalia was right. With Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s first week on the job, the play could not be more timely.
Below. The Pasadena Playhouse. April 14, 2017