' ' Cinema Romantico: What the Constitution Means to Me

Thursday, October 29, 2020

What the Constitution Means to Me

“What the Constitution Means to Me”, first produced in 2017 before moving to Berkeley Rep and then Off-Broadway and then finally to Broadway where it was filmed late in its run by director Marielle Heller, is based on the experiences of playwright and primary performer Heidi Schreck competing as a teenager in constitutional debates at various American Legion Halls around the country. As the play opens, Schreck, decked out in a yellow blazer, asks the audience to imagine her as a 15-year old girl just as she asks the audience to imagine themselves as men since Legionnaires were men-only. If it’s funny, in a broad kind of way, asking women and people of color to imagine themselves as old white dudes, it also speaks to the play’s duality, brought home in Schreck outlining the spoken and unspoken societal restrictions so frequently forcing so many Americans to be two different people. This painful reality, Schreck outlines, could have been prevented by the Constitution. But if our founding document installed certain freedoms by stipulating what the government cannot restrict, it also forewent stipulating certain freedoms that a government could (should?) provide, while fuzzy 18th century writing frequently left these matters open to interpretation, providing a lane for much modern legalese to leave so many, typically women and minorities, out in the cold. (There is an astonishing moment when Schreck simply plays the audio of Justice Stephen Breyer and the Originalist Flimflam Man, late Justice Antonin Scalia, arguing about the meaning of “shall” in reference to the 2005 case Castle Rock v Gonzales which renders these ostensible legal giants as nothing more than Slick Willie debating the definition of “is.”) 

Initially Schreck recreates one of her scholastic debates, the stage set up to look like the Legion Hall in her Washington state hometown, with framed photos of men in American legion caps surrounding her on the wood-paneled walls while a Legionnaire (Mike Iveson) issues debate instructions from a seat to her left. If at first Schreck assumes the overzealous air of a youthful debater, her smile epitomizing a tendency toward what she later deems psychotic politeness, the way she frequently leaves space after punchlines allows the concurrent melancholia in these punchlines to then quietly creep in. And if she admits the personalized argument portion of the debate was always difficult for her, eventually the lights dim and she discards her yellow blazer, leaving her 15-year old self behind, truly defining what the constitution means to her by melding her own life story with the stories of other women as she gradually, gracefully invites everyone into the show.

If the Legionnaire spends most of the show as an unsmiling presence, midway through “What the Constitution Means to Me” Schreck cedes the stage to him as he stands up, sheds the character’s uniform and tells his own life story. If that story is predominantly about coming out, however, the details mirror the hostility and intimidating air of violence as the experiences described by Schreck. And just when the play seems about to conclude, Schreck upends everything by converting “What the Constitution Means to Me” into a literal constitutional debate by bringing a teenage debater (Rosdely Ciprian) onstage to have an exchange of views on whether the Constitution should be abolished and remade from scratch or reimagined through the existing framework. And then Schreck brings the audience into the debate, not simply by having them express approval for their preferred argument but by choosing one member of the collective to decide which debater wins. 

I thought about this ending because throughout the filmed version of the play I kept wondering why Heller kept cutting to shots of the audience, like it was an HBO comedy special as opposed to a work of art unto itself. But, of course, Heller was laying the groundwork for this finish, ensuring we grasped, subconsciously or otherwise, the play was as much about them – us – as it was about her. And if I loved “What the Constitution Means to Me”, the structure, the performance (Schreck is exceptional at being rehearsed when she should seem rehearsed and spontaneous when she should seem spontaneous), the righteous anger that she lets bubble over even while marshaling comprehensive, composed arguments, I loved Heller’s direction too, subtly providing its own point of view that instead of subsuming Schreck’s enhances it. 

Throughout the play’s early scenes, as Schreck reimagines one of her scholastic debates, the camera continually catches at the end of sentences and in the middle of sentences glancing toward the Legionnaire because she knows she’s on a debate clock. But as the play moves out of this reimagination and into her personal history, she still keeps glancing leftward, an incessant reminder of women live looking over their shoulder, the proximity of Heller’s camera for these looks bringing them to agonizing life.

And Heller favors low angle shots throughout that seem to make those American Legion photos stretch on into forever.

Best of all, though, is a moment after Mike has deliberately broken, leaving the Legionnaire behind, told his story and sat back down. After he does, Schreck advises the audience that if they have not already done so, this would be a good time to once again to proceed as being who they are and stop imagining themselves as men.

After she does, the camera scans the crowd, letting that idea sink in. 

“You are welcome,” she reiterates, “to be yourself.” At which point she pauses, for just a second, and then smiles at Mike, transforming one of those little leftward looks mentioned above into something else entirely. 

And Mike smiles back, a shared moment of kindness. 

Rather than return directly to the play, however, Heller cuts to a shot behind Schreck, looking out into the darkness of the theater, lingering there for a just second. Because if this scene, just like the play itself, argues that we have the ability with words and amendments to make innate America as a sanctuary, a place fundamentally required to take care of its own, that idea, somehow, remains up for debate. 

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