A play is viewed by some purists as a static document frozen in time, such as Shakespeare’s famed Hamlet remaining the same for hundreds of years. Others believe the same work instead could be considered a breathing text, able to transform the melancholy Hamlet of old into a 21st century thriller.
Like a play, the U.S. Constitution begs the same argument. It’s either a stone monument that can be altered only through the arduous process of amendments, or it’s a living document that requires interpretation based on an ever-changing society.
It’s that tug-of-war between fixed and flexible that playwright Heidi Schreck used as a canvas to paint her compelling, fascinating, funny and sometimes heartbreaking one-act Broadway hit What the Constitution Means to Me. Directed by Oliver Butler and starring Maria Dizzia, who took over the role from Schreck for the national tour, the 110-minute performance runs through Feb. 28 at Downtown’s Mark Taper Forum.
Schreck, who argues for the living nature of the Constitution, has practiced what she preaches by creating a play that, while carefully crafted, also allows for some changes to the outcome of each performance.
It’s more appropriate to call Constitution a theatrical experience more than a standard play, because Schreck incorporates several elements that are unique to live performance.
Dizzia addresses the audience directly, explaining that without any performance shift that she will become Schreck as a 15-year-old and then as a grown-up, before she will eventually drop the character to become herself.
The actress self-consciously refers to the play’s artifice, while moving in and out of the basic plot — an autobiographical recounting of Schreck’s time as a teen winning speech competitions about the Constitution to earn money for college.
Schreck, who was obsessed with witches at the time, used her speech to compare the Constitution to a crucible and a cauldron, mixing up a variety of ingredients to create a magical brew. Dizzia re-enacts a standard speech contest at a Legionnaire’s Hall (a one-room set by Rachel Hauck) in her home state of Washington, led by a proctor (Mike Iveson).
Eventually, her impassioned speech goes over the contest’s allotted time as Dizzia uses the 14th and the ninth amendments as springboards to show how the country has failed to equally protect the rights and safety of women, immigrants, LGBTQ community, people of color and indigenous Americans. These failings had direct and severe impact on Schreck and her family in several ways, dating to her great-grandmother, who was purchased as a bride in a catalogue and who died of melancholia at the age of 36 in a state mental hospital.
Schreck’s stance on the issues is clear, shown most clearly by a powerful rebuke of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Incorporating audio from the actual deliberation, Scalia is heard debating the meaning of the word “shall” in the case that involved Jessica Gonzales, whose three young daughters were killed by her husband after police refused to help when she reported him as being violent. Scalia argued they were not provided protection by the Constitution.
In an effort to highlight the personal impact, Dizzia and Iveson also offer personal accounts about how the lack of protections is so pervasive that it has been inherited through generations.
President Donald Trump isn’t mentioned by name, but there’s a reference to a possible play-to-come about immigrant children being taken from parents and locked in cages.
The changing aspect to each performance comes at the end, when Dizzia invites a local student (Jocelyn Shek at this performance) to debate her on whether to keep or abolish the Constitution. A coin flip determines the sides they take and an audience member chooses the winner (Dizzia won this time for her argument to keep the flawed but essential document).
Constitution on its surface may sound like a depressing soapbox screed, but it’s far from that. There’s humor throughout, and Dizzia’s comic timing is sharp. Likewise, the pleas for change stem from honest, straightforward anecdotes, not platitudes and preaching.
Butler’s direction is a deft mix of casual and tight pacing. At times, the house lights are up and the actors seem to almost be winging it, but it’s clear through the steady shift in tone and temp that every element has been considered.
During the final debate, everyone in the audience receives a pocket copy of the Constitution to take home. What the Constitution Means to Me is so enlightening, it’s sure to get many people reading the hallowed document again—or for the first time.
What the Constitution Means to Me runs through Feb. 28 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. or centertheatregroup.org.