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Review

'What the Constitution Means to Me' breaks rules and brings electricity to FST

The 2017 play by Heidi Schreck offers a portrait of the playwright as a young constitutional scholar at Florida Studio Theatre.


Deysha Nelson, Amy Bodnar and Kevin Loreque start in this civic-minded play.
Deysha Nelson, Amy Bodnar and Kevin Loreque start in this civic-minded play.
Photo courtesy of John Jones
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Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me” (2017) is now in session at Florida Studio Theatre. This unconventional, Swiss Army knife of a play combines civics lessons, character study, personal history, stand-up and nostalgia for high school forensics. In case you haven’t thought about the Constitution since high school, you’ll definitely think about it once you see it.

The play begins as a loving look at the playwright’s real-life experiences as a teenager. When Schreck (Amy Bodnar) was only 15 years old, her mother had a crazy idea. Her daughter had keen debate and public speaking skills. Why not use them to pay for her college education? 

She could do it by winning the cash prizes at constitutional debate competitions in America Legion Halls across the country. 

It was worth a try, so Schreck hit the road. 

In her play, we see her teenage self in one of those competitions. The kid’s got talent, all right — and she’s obsessed with the Salem witch trials. In her oral argument, she compares the constitution to a witch’s cauldron. (She also confuses “cauldron” with “crucible,” probably because of Arthur Miller’s play.)

And she’s so earnest it hurts. Schreck’s teenage self smiles so much it makes her face hurt. It must have been a winning smile. Combined with her precocious logic and command of metaphor, it helped Schreck win scores of debates and ultimately put her through college. Her mother’s crazy scheme actually worked. So what’s her prize-winning argument?

Sadly, her mother threw away her winning essay. 

Happily, the adult playwright resurrects it from memory. Young Schreck loves the constitution, and she’s a super-fan of the Ninth and Fourteenth amendments. She’s memorized both — and breaks it down like a legal pro. 

But in the extemporaneous debate finale, she goes off on several tangents. She also goes way over time. The unnamed Legionnaire in charge (Kevin Loreque) should theoretically ring the bell and rein her in. But she keeps talking and gets away with it, thanks to the suspension of disbelief.

Schreck’s digressions move away from abstract legal theory. She shares gory headlines about men who murdered women. She gets personal and talks about oppressive experiences of women in her family in Washington State. 

The worst tale is three generations back. Schreck’s great-great-grandfather “purchased” her great-great-grandmother as a mail-order bride for $75; she died of “melancholia” at age 36. She also recalls her experience at an abortion clinic in Eugene, Oregon, at age 21. She gets into William O Douglas’ “penumbra” theory. All these theories, memories and observations draw your attention to one glaring omission: The American constitution doesn’t protect American women from the violence of American men.

On page 29 of the script, the playwright’s persona says, “I’m just gonna go ahead and be ‘myself now’ all the time now.” 

And that’s the last we see of Schreck’s teenage self. After that, the playwright shares a few more anecdotes. But the rest of her play is basically an oral argument, not a dramatic situation. Schreck makes it funny; and the material would kill in a comedy club. But it’s an argument nonetheless.

Structurally, “What the Constitution Means to Me” is a wild ride. Director Kate Alexander hangs on through the constant shifts in style and tone. Schreck’s play deals with heavy issues. But it’s ultimately a comedy. 

Alexander delivers the laughs.

Schreck’s play grew out of her one-person show. It’s not anymore, but that focus remains in the show’s DNA. One star, one voice, one controlling intelligence. That’s how it works, in theory. Whether it works on stage is up to the actor in the lead role. 

Amy Bodnar stars as the playwright's alter ego.
Photo courtesy of John Jones

Bodnar definitely makes it work. She conveys Schreck’s high-voltage persona and quick mind — and also her joy, hurt and anger. Bodnar’s embodiment of Schreck’s persona makes you feel as if you’ve met her. Brava!

The supporting roles don’t get the spotlight, but the actors still manage to shine. Loreque conveys the clockwork precision of the Legionnaire in charge and melts into the persona of the original actor who played that role with ease. 

Deysha Nelson is a crowd-pleaser as a high-school debater (15 years old, actually) who goes one-on-one with the Schreck character. Nelson is great at thinking on her feet. That’s in the script, of course. But Nelson’s equally great in the improv scenes.

(Marissa Gast performs the character on alternate nights.) 

The War of the Words goes down in a no-nonsense Legion Hall set, complete with wood paneled walls lined with photos of dour Legionnaires. Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay excel at realism, as always. 

(There’s no door, but the playwright’s adult persona takes the blame. She forgot to put one in when she imagined her youthful debate arena.) 

Kudos also to Mari Taylor Floyd’s costume design. First appearing in a bright yellow blazer, Schreck comes on like a butterfly as her younger self. 

She peels the jacket off when she transforms into her fearless (but less flashy) adult incarnation. Beneath the bright color, she sports no-nonsense jeans and a white, floral-print shirt. Nice touch!

It’s a fun show. The fun flows from Schreck’s charismatic personality. (Check out the movie adaptation on Amazon to see the playwright in action.) 

The playwright poured her energy into the script; Bodnar channels it on stage. Good thing. Without Schreck’s gigawatt persona, the lights would go out.

“What the Constitution Means to Me” breaks several playwriting rules. Schreck colors outside the lines — and that’s fine by me, so long as it works. 

But one of her cheeky transgressions bugs me. Her play is a bait-and-switch. You come for the dramatic situation. You stay for the oral argument. 

Schreck argues against the “negative rights” constitutional theory. This was Justice Antonin Scalia’s position — and the Supreme Court’s decision in Castle Rock v. Gonzales (2005). The state of Colorado had passed a law requiring police to act when a restraining order was violated. 

They didn’t — and Jessica Gonzales’ husband murdered her children as a result. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the police. According to “negative rights” constitutional theory, they had no obligation to act. Schreck argues for “positive rights” because the opposing theory gets women killed.

That’s one example out of many. But that’s the heart of it.

“What the Constitution Means to Me” reiterates this point in its final scenes. These include a first-person narrative from the original Legionnaire’s perspective and a debate between Schreck and a high school student on whether the United States Constitution should be rewritten. 

(Bad idea if you ask me. Unless “Mad Max” is your idea of a good time.) 

Who wins that debate? That depends. 

A random arbitrar from the audience gets to decide.

Having been a master debater in high school, I enjoy this kind of thing. And I deeply care about these issues today. The opening night audience was also profoundly moved — but by what? Were they responding to legal argument — or the playwright’s charisma? Having seen Schreck’s filmed performance on Amazon, I’d say it’s mostly the latter.

Schreck’s play reminds me of Robin Williams’ standup comedy. He’s all over the place. He follows tangent after tangent like a dog chasing a squirrel. 

Memory becomes film becomes a debate becomes stream of consciousness becomes a one-on-one riff with someone in the audience. 

It’s fun because he’s Robin Williams. “What the Constitution Means to Me” is also fun — because the playwright is Heidi Schreck. Structurally, it’s a hot mess. The playwright gets away with it because she keeps it fun. 

That’s not just a matter of abstract ideas. It’s a question of charisma. So long as Schreck’s psychic electricity flows on stage, her play works.

The electricity came to FST in this production. 

To me, that’s more like winning a risky bet than a sure thing. Which leads to my advice to wannabe playwrights …

Don’t try this at home.


 

author

Marty Fugate

Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.

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