Slowly, a slight figure steps onstage. The audience goes wild, but Ruth Bader Ginsburg, matriarch of the United States Supreme Court, calls for quiet. This is no time for celebration — she is here to judge Electra, the ancient Greek tragic heroine.
“I am so excited,” says one audience member as she sees the progressive pop culture icon, affectionately nicknamed “the notorious RBG,” enter the scene.
“Go RBG!” yells someone else in support of the 86-year-old judge, who underwent lung surgery in December.
With a slow gesture, Ginsburg silences the crowd. Her voice, reedy but clear, can be heard throughout the room at Washington’s Sidney Harman Hall: “The Supreme Court of Athens will hear the case of Orestes v. Electra.”
Ginsberg, who has become something of a celebrity after being the subject of a hugely successful documentary and a Hollywood movie starring Felicity Jones, enjoys theatrics herself as a member of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Bard Association.
The group offers leading legal figures the chance to tread the boards twice a year as part of its “Mock Trial” series, in which they judge characters from classical tragedies.
In Monday’s trial, Aeschylus’s tragic heroine Electra has been ordered to pay damages to her brother Orestes for allegedly convincing him to murder their mother Clytemnestra, causing the young king to lose both his reputation and his mind.
Electra insists her brother acted under orders from the Oracle of Delphi and that she is innocent. She appealed her case to the Supreme Court of Athens, asking them to overturn her sentence.
“King Orestes is not happy,” says Electra’s lawyer — real-life Washington legal eagle Beth Brinkmann.
“He wants to make Athens great again,” which has not worked, and so he turned against his sister and attempted to “lock her up,” argues Brinkmann.
It is the first in a series of references to President Donald Trump and his infamous campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
– ‘Dysfunctional’ –
Orestes’s lawyer, Elizabeth Wydra, has a similarly wry line of argument.
“My client is the victim of a witch hunt,” she says, in another Trump reference — this time evoking his favored phrase to denigrate the investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election.
The zingers hit their targets, and the audience laughs uproariously. Washington is an overwhelmingly Democratic city, and Trump criticisms are common, both open and anonymous.
But Ginsburg, a figurehead of the left due to her defense of women’s rights and environmental causes, can’t afford to be so liberal with her critiques.
She already came under fire in 2016 for calling Trump a “faker.” This time, she sticks to fact-based questions.
Seated next to her, Stephen Breyer — a fellow Associate Justice of the Supreme Court — plays another judge in the fictional trial.
He notes with irony the many dramas that the house of Atreus, Electra and Orestes’s ancestor, has seen unfold: murders, infanticides and patricides committed over multiple generations.
“This is a seriously dysfunctional family,” he says, grinning.
The justices “take great pleasure” in the mock trials, said Abbe Lowell, a lawyer and the president of the Bard Association.
“They come prepared. They come with jokes.”
– Poking fun –
The Bard Association started hosting mock trials in 1994. Originally they only held one a year but in recent years made the performances biannual affairs.
“We always have at least one Supreme Court Justice, sometimes two or three,” said Lowell.
Ginsburg is a mock trial regular, and has also judged cases inspired by Macbeth, Camelot and Don Quixote.
The legal community is supportive of the theater group because they appreciate the themes and the texts, said Lowell.
“They find it the funniest thing they do in Washington,” he added.
But how do they reconcile the tone of the evening with their job, which demands objectivity?
It’s common to poke fun at “whatever the circumstances are going on at the time of the trial,” said Lowell.
“But it’s done in a good-natured, balanced way. People know where to draw the line.”
On Monday, Orestes lost his case: the audience and the five judges, headed by RBG, decided unanimously in favor of his sister.
“We have agreed to reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals,” Ginsberg announced.
“What must be stopped is the cycle of violence. We have to find a way for people to come together.”