Friday, October 16, 2020

Form a More Perfect Union:

In this precarious moment for our democracy, how refreshing to hear someone speak about our Constitution and mean it. We’ve had our fill of prevaricating mendacious allegiances sworn to this document by those who wish to insincerely view it as an inerrant talismanic source of originalist interpretation, when they see it as a convenient carte blanche ticket to roll back rights. What a breath of fresh air — almost dizzying in its openness and honesty — to hear Heidi Schreck tell us what the Constitution means to her. Director Marielle Heller, whose deeply and sensitively compassionate films like A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Can You Ever Forgive Me? are casually radical character pieces interrogating familiar ideas from unusual angles, filmed Schreck’s one-woman show What the Constitution Means to Me. It’s an extension of Heller’s interests in intimate personal stories and the responsibilities we have to one another. Schreck’s theater piece is a work about the successes and failures of the American project, about the patterns of abuse and the potential for progress in the life of her family and the life of our country. The two creative voices work well together, Heller choosing exactly the right camera placement, cuts, pans, and pushes to unobtrusively emphasize and draw the eye, as Schreck’s masterful monologue slips quickly and logically between time and topic, building a persuasive argument that the Constitution, for all the flaws of interpretation and implementation over our history, remains a vital tool for reviving and providing basic rights and the means to add to them.

To do so, she begins by recreating a speech she gave over twenty years prior as a fifteen-year-old entering an American Legion oration contest in pursuit of scholarship money. (The simple set, naturally, is a wood-panelled room with veteran's portraits lining the walls and the stars and stripes framing a simple podium.) The assigned topic was the title of this project. She chipperly inhabits her adolescent self, beaming broadly as she recreates this experience, boundless enthusiasm sliding between earnest and put on, as she cheerfully praises our founding document and its incredible bedrock importance for protecting Americans. Occasionally, she steps out of her past self and talks to us as a middle-aged woman living in 2019. She comments, adds context, extrapolates. Sometimes she discusses Supreme Court decisions or other relevant case law. Other times she talks about her family history, in particular generations of women who pushed against expectations, lived difficult lives, and suffered hard-fought battles for their rights. As she continues, the distance between her youthful enthusiasm and her modern perspective grows—and yet she never loses sight of the potential in the document that is her topic. The show expands—builds arguments, tells stories, even briefly adds other voices (though it remains a one woman show) —and Heller chooses well when to cut away—letting Schreck catch her breath or allow us brief close-ups of audience members as implications or emotions land with them. It’s not all serious business, despite subject matter as intense as the danger of domestic abuse and the very fate of our country, as Shreck’s charming demeanor is learned and casual, breezily funny, whip-smart crackling with research rigor, and always real. It’s a righteous sermon and a dazzling debate, a wrenching personal statement and an earnest call to political engagement. In the end, she’s built her case that our country has a strong foundation, and we not only need to push to expand it, but also vote to keep it.

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