movie review

What the Constitution Means to Me Film Unleashes a Boiler Full of Flames

When everything feels too overwhelming to watch at home, Heidi Schreck’s Broadway show (streaming on Prime Video) hits the right chord of anger. Photo: Joan Marcus

Heidi Schreck’s show What the Constitution Means to Me is a (mostly) one-woman performance that shifts between constitutional history and personal storytelling. Schreck opens the show by re-creating her own teenage speech about the Constitution for the American Legion and then considers that experience with her understanding of the role of women in American history — and the history of women in her family. After both an Off Broadway and Broadway run, a filmed version directed by Marielle Heller is now available to watch on Prime Video. Here, two Vulture writers discuss what this latest incarnation of What the Constitution Means to Me means to them.

Helen Shaw: So, Kathryn, I believe you never saw the show on stage. Is that right?

Kathryn VanArendonk: It’s true, this was my first experience with the show. I’d been meaning to see it and just had never gotten my act together, and so all I’d previously absorbed was: yellow blazer, constitution, probably makes you cry, feminism.

Having now seen the filmed version for Amazon Prime, I’m still sad that I never saw it on stage, but I’m also so grateful that this filmed version exists! It was lovely! I can see what all the fuss was about! You saw it on stage more than once, yes?

HS: I saw it a bajillion times. I think the first time was at the Clubbed Thumb Summerworks festival, which happens downtown [New York City] at the Wild Project. The year was … I want to say 2017. Heidi Schreck had been working on it already for years, though, and word had leaked out that it was special.

The thing that strikes me is that it actually has not changed that much — from its extremely downtown incarnation to its march through Off Broadway (it was at New York Theater Workshop and at the Greenwich House Theatre before Broadway) and then on the Main Stem. It has always been that same blazer, the same construction and argument, and the same feeling from both performer and audience that this was the perfect night to be thinking about women and the Constitution.

KV: Yes, it’s a sad fact of history and the present that there’s truly no moment when one could be watching a performance like this and think, Huh, this revelatory consideration of Constitutional history and violence against women feels a little dated.

Still, there was one moment in here where that hit me particularly hard — Schreck plays a few different clips of Supreme Court justices throughout the show, and the last one is of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. My gut, it aches. But even though this was filmed quite a while ago, that reference still felt perfect. It’s so much more infuriating and so much sadder than it might’ve been originally — Ginsburg’s line about how there should be nine women on the Court is mostly meant to be radical and celebratory.

HS: Both Sara Holdren (when writing the review for New York) and others (me in this review) have noted how the NYTW production happened to hit right when the Kavanaugh hearings were happening. One of the times I went was after listening to hours of hearings — we had all just heard Christine Blasey Ford say “I will never forget the laughter,” and every woman in the house felt like she’d been walloped with a meat tenderizer. Heidi was weeping for most of the show, and I will say it’s a little odd to see her of-the-moment tears “fixed” by Amazon Prime — each tear is now there forever. When you saw them in the house, especially if you happened to be soaking up your own sobs with your playbill, they felt like one of the primary communications between speaker and listener. We were crying together. I admit, on screen, I now see that it’s part of a beautifully judged performance. I both admire it and miss the (illusion of?) spontaneity.

KV: That does feel like one of the central acts of performance and construction here. I was aware of her emotion, I felt the emotion, and I couldn’t help but think, How hard is it for her to access this every night? What is this show like, week after week? One of the moments that she really grapples with emotionally in this filmed performance is about the first clause of Amendment Four, and without knowing exactly what she was responding to, it seemed probable to me that it was a particular reference to family separation at the border. It’s one of the most impressive things about the writing of this, though, and her performance of it, that it feels so open to whatever event or trigger feels most current and meaningful.

That feels like partially a result of how spare it is — it’s mostly her, on this stage, with a simple, single set. I was curious how much the set changed from its earliest staging. All those portraits of men staring down at her — it’s so effective.

HS: Amazingly, the set has been the same since downtown. The proportions may have been stretched a little. They’ve added an additional row of dudes in little American Legion hats on the portrait rail, but it’s identical in both look and tone. In the show, she jokes about asking her friend Rachel (Hauck, the set designer) to build her the American Legion hall as she remembers it … but that she forgot to ask for a door. When we were all crammed into the Wild Project, some of us sitting on the steps, she was sharing our sense of claustrophobia. But when that same staging migrated to the Helen Hayes stage, it worked just as brilliantly. I knew that this had been filmed on Broadway, but I kept stopping the video and checking the audience angles because I could have sworn we were downtown at the Workshop. That’s one of the technical things I was most impressed by: Schreck and her director Oliver Butler made a show that feels infinitely scaleable. She could do this thing at Madison Square Garden, and it would still be itself, exactly.

KV: I’ll admit I’m a sucker for those little lines she adds, as throwaways, acknowledging both the simplicity of the set and the looping, apparently wandering (but not really) structure of the show. (“If I had one of those big Broadway sets,” she says at one point, and also: “This show is very carefully constructed; it’s not my fault if you can’t see the structures.”) They’re enough to call attention to her work, without being too smug about it. I think the direction of the special (by Marielle Heller) was also effective here. The shots were often close, without being too in her face, and it wasn’t designed to draw attention to fancy camera angles or the unusual access of a filming crew.

I did wonder about those audience reaction shots, though. They’re a familiar go-to for comedy specials, but they can so often feel indulgent or choppy. (Or fake!)

HS: They do, though, point to the feeling of watching the show. Because the show is lecture theater, we need to stay aware of ourselves as the jury/congregation/audience. I remember looking up and down the rows when I saw it live, fascinated by the variety of reactions — the rapture from young women, the polite interest from those who weren’t touched by it, and the painful vulnerability from those who clearly thought she was speaking straight to them. It was a little awful — as in, awe-inspiring and terrible — to be out in an audience that was sometimes exploding with tension and grief, as Heidi spoke about assault or abortion or the fear a girl experiences on an average date with an average boy. It felt like land mine, land mine, land mine, all night.

KV: Do you think this version captures that feeling? I think we can both agree that having something like this is worlds better than not having it, especially for the huge audience who can’t make it to a Broadway show. But I watched it by myself in the middle of the day. I missed a collective response to it, but I think I also appreciated the ability to just sit and react — alone.

HS: I mean … I think those audience shots do indicate how much the original was intertwined — constitutionally, you might say — with the in-the-room experience. She’s a debater, she’s a hell of an actor, she has her hands on the reins and you can kind of feel her tugging on them during the course of the live show. That sense, no, I don’t feel it in the Amazon Prime filming.

What the film version does, though, is it let me take it at my own pace. I needed to pause it occasionally to just go off and stare out a window. I also took notes. And this time, after seeing the darn thing five times, I feel like I finally wrote down the correct statistics. One of WTCMTM’s engines is sheer information. You learn in this show, and I’m the sort of student who needs a bit of repetition.

KV: Ah, yes, being able to pause to write down a quote — the luxury of a TV critic! You described it as lecture theater, which is something I was hit by because I truly love a good lecture. I also kept thinking about how different it is from lecture-y TV, which is almost uniformly abysmal. (Aaron Sorkin … you know I am thinking about you.) It’s also not overly smug about being historical and smart — none of Hamilton’s sweaty pride and none of its founding-father hagiography. There was no point in the show when I felt like the lecture was condescending or preachy or all the things we mean when we use “lecture” in a negative way. That final debate section, though, seems like a key to how she fully unravels any unpleasant, deeply misogynist sense of herself as school-marm-ish.

HS: I always thought the ending with the young debater was her way out of anger. Whenever you see a woman beating herself silly for some perceived failure or physical shortcoming or whatever, you say — talk to yourself as you would talk to your daughter! Be as kind to yourself as you would be kind to her! And I think Heidi is doing something similar here, except to … the citizenry. To the country. There’s a tremendous amount of emotion in the show, but, for me, the home chord is anger. Heidi is so, so, so angry about the violence against women that continues, sanctioned by the government, unabated. Heidi’s such an obviously warm person, and then during the show it’s as though she lets the door in her chest swing open, and you see that she’s a boiler full of flames.

So how can she pivot from that rage to an ending? She can only bring on someone who has (I said this in a review once) the power of the unhurt. Those girls are the only mechanism strong enough to keep her from tearing up the Constitution, the room, the audience, herself …

KV: I completely see the anger — and, by the way, any concern I have about coming off as overly pedagogical is probably my own defensiveness because I have been known to be … uh … a little lecture-y myself. So there! I will treat myself as I would my own daughter! But the fact that the final section is a debate also seems crucial. It’s not like she hands over the stage to these young women and just lets them stage their own competition. It’s this demonstration of how to have this argument passionately, of how to make this into more than one person’s voice. That’s partially a ruse, of course, because Schreck wrote it all. Still, the openness of it at the end, the way she brings in the audience, the way the two young women bring so much of themselves, makes it feel like a bridge out of anger, — but also a lesson in how to move out of lecture into multi-vocality, into action.

HS: This show is full of bravura turns, and that’s the bravura-est. As she says, the structure is very carefully considered. I think about how she juxtaposes herself with the non-performers, and you sense how she’s asking us to think deeply about rhetoric, the means by which we persuade and inform and galvanize. The game of the debate is an invitation for us to do our own critical analysis; the selection of the audience member creates a little frisson of danger. Will she pick me? Do I have to stand up in front of all these people? Again, these are tools that have been sharpened for in-person performance, and they work best there — but the film can at least demonstrate their use.

KV: I keep thinking about how it will feel for people to watch this now, in October of 2020. I’m glad it will be there for them. It also feels almost too overwhelming to watch right now.

HS: Since it’s just the two of us having this conversation, I feel I can confide this: I find everything too overwhelming to watch right now. Every story I read or watch feels like the song from Nero’s fiddle. In that way, at least, Schreck’s show is the right kind of whelming. It’s not lying about what it is. It’s not trying to distract me from the fight. It’s actually arming me with dates and figures and arguments. Since my life has narrowed down to my computer screen, I toggle between two kinds of content: doomscrolling terror-news and entertainment. I think I’ve been worn out by the toggling itself! In What the Constitution Means to Me at least the two things are the same thing. I think that’s why I found it both deeply moving but also restful. Ah, here’s a piece that doesn’t want me to look away from the world in order to look at it, I thought. I can look at the world through it.

KV: She also leaves us with such a lovely, legitimately affirming image to turn to when the doomscrolling gets particularly nightmarish. Near the end, she talks about something her mother told her to picture: a woman and a dog running together along the beach. If you look at the dog, you see a dog running back and forth, never making any progress. But when you watch the woman, you can see her moving forward. I’m just going to try to clutch that thought close for the foreseeable future.

HS: To women on the beach! [Clink.]

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