Review: “What the Constitution Means to Me” at the Mark Taper Forum

Maria Dizzia in the national tour of “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Photo: Joan Marcus.

“Thank you all so much for being here!” Maria Dizzia (Eurydice, Uncle Vanya) beamed in a sunny yellow blazer, as she made her entrance as Heidi Schreck at the start of What the Constitution Means to Me. She began by telling us how, when she was 15, she gave speeches about the U.S. Constitution in American Legion Hall competitions to win money to pay for college. Playwright, Heidi Schreck (Grand Concourse, Nurse Jackie) darts masterfully back and forth between the nuggets of her own life and the facts of this country’s violent self-imagining. Needless to say, this is a challenging and important play in the context of our divided times.

L-R: Rosdely Ciprian and Maria Dizzia in the national tour of “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Photo: Joan Marcus

Directed by Obie award winner, Oliver Butler (Thom Pain, Bad Jews), Ms. Dizzia uses every tool of rhetorical argument to make her case and leaves the audience members wondering: “Where have we been as our rights have been threatened and how much more will the High Court diminish those rights in the future?” Discoursing on both the Ninth and the Fourteenth Amendments, she dissects the history of Roe v. Wade and how that decision affected her life and her family history.

This witty and personal exploration breathes new life into our founding document and imagines how it will shape the next generation of American citizens. We get to hear the story of Schreck’s mother, grandmother and her great-great grandmother, Theresa, a mail-order bride purchased for $75 from a catalogue. We hear about how the hundreds of unions between Native American women and white men in Washington were annulled with the coming of statehood, and how, under the Constitution, those women were “no longer considered people.”

(background) Maria Dizzia and (foreground) Mike Iveson in the national tour of “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Photo: Joan Marcus

In one of the show’s most chilling moments, Dizzia plays a recording of Justices Scalia and Breyer during the Castle Rock v. Gonzalez Supreme Court trial: They focus not on the mother whose children were kidnapped and killed by her husband, not on the negligence of the local police, who failed to show up no matter how many times Gonzalez called them. Instead, they pedantically debate the meaning of the word “shall.”

The box-like set design by Rachel Hauck (Othello, Hadestown) is a representation of the box in which we all live, our fractured country, our troubled Constitution, our long history of rules made by and for white men; to ensure, first and foremost, their own safety, prosperity and power. Schreck also uses the piece to examine her individual and family history (with many intimate and graphic details) and analytically discuss the impact and shortcomings of the Constitution and modern Supreme Court cases when it comes to women’s rights, equality and immigration reform.

She is assisted by Mike Iveson (Plenty, West Side Story), who plays both a time card-holding moderator and provides “positive male energy” and a real-life teenage debater (the lawyer-like 15-year-old Rosdely Ciprian). Iveson isn’t simply asked to represent a figure from Schreck’s past, or to stand for Men in General, though he does both. But he also gets a chance to introduce himself. Stepping to the front of the stage and removing his American Legion get-up piece by piece, he talks about the years he spent growing up a nerdy gay kid with a very charming (and very masculine) British working-class father, and about his own uncertainty over how to respond when men have tried to engage him in locker-room talk about women.

As a finale, Ms. Dizzia and the teenager engage in a parliamentary-style debate over whether to abolish the Constitution altogether and start again from scratch. An audience member gets to choose the winner. Overall, “What the Constitution Means to Me” is a chilling reminder of the importance of being an informed citizen, and reading the Constitution of the United States is the first step. A copy is provided to each audience member. Let our learning begin.

— Victor Riobo

What the Constitution Means to Me runs through February 29th at CTGLA’s Mark Taper Forum. Tickets HERE.