A deeply vital, relevant piece of current political theatre, What the Constitution Means to Me, is an unexpected firecracker of a play running at the New York Theatre Workshop through Oct. 28. Written and, for the most part, performed by Heidi Schreck, this 90-minute cross between memory play, political activism and a history lesson is a deeply compelling, emotionally torturous piece.
Directed by Oliver Butler, this genuinely original and unique production makes the case both against and for the U.S. Constitution. By the end of Schreck’s powerhouse performance, one will have difficulty looking at that document the same way.
For a relatively short piece, Constitution covers a wide emotional and political range of subject matter from Supreme Court decisions to the family history of Schreck, all tightly woven together by the central actor. Assisting her is Mike Iveson who has his own moment in the spotlight.
Iveson acts not only as an American Legion official from Schreck’s memory, but also as a judge and prompter for the play’s final showdown — a live debate between Schreck and a high school student who currently debates the Constitution all across the country. Depending on the night, Thursday Williams or Rosdely Ciprian go toe-to-toe with Schreck in an invigorating, audience participation-filled debate.
Fun aside, this piece is inherently uplifting and harrowing. Schreck methodically and hilariously dissects the Constitution in both the ways it has failed to protect women and the inability of men in power to consider women as people. The violence inherent in the system is the main enemy of this production and rightfully so. Clips from Supreme Court hearings regarding domestic violence protection and contraception are played to clinical effectiveness, perfectly attuned to their inherent soullessness, especially from the justices themselves.
One might hear a low hum emanating throughout the set. That’s courtesy of Sound Designer Sinan Zafar, whose work might be imperceptible if not for the unique awareness Schreck makes of the dark undercurrents of the Constitution. That same low hum will absolutely become perceptible after experiencing those moments when the hum becomes shouting. Those screams are about women stepping out of their place, children dying because they were pawns in men’s games and the inability of lawmakers to develop any sort of empathy toward women and minorities.
The production team does a wonderful job restoring Schreck’s memories, from Rachel Hauck’s American Legion set to Michael Krass’ costuming. Jennifer Schriever effectively lights the more reminiscent portions of the work and masterfully turns the theater into a communal space where everyone is welcome.
Politicians beware — Schreck is coming with razor-sharp wit and no inclination to be kind when men in power willfully choose not to be. The result is something relevant, brilliant and unforgiving. If only everyone else could reach Schreck’s great heights.