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Theatre in Review: The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (Transit Group and NAATCO/Abrons Art Center)

David Huynh, Eunice Wong. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Off Broadway continues its ad hoc lives-of-the-saints series with this revival of the 1971 drama about a famous (or notorious) anti-Vietnam War protest, featuring the activist priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan. It's a courtroom drama, but don't expect an evening of actors, their hands on a Bible, swearing to tell the whole truth: Under the direction of Jack Cummings III, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, a theatre-of-testimony piece, has been reimagined in ways that are sometimes theatrically arresting but, more often, are at cross purposes with the text.

As I noted in a column a few days ago, the New York theatre has, just recently, developed an improbable fascination with the holy men and women of the Catholic Church. Examples includes Jessica Dickey's The Convent, which focuses on the great female Catholic mystics and their message for contemporary women, and a revival of A Man for All Seasons, about Thomas More's fateful, fatal encounter with Henry VIII over the latter's break from Rome. I don't sense a rush in Rome to canonize the Berrigans, who alienated many of the faithful with their acts of civil disobedience; then again, it only took the hierarchy six centuries to come around on Joan of Arc.

Still, these days, with the church mired in so many sexual scandals, the heroic virtue of the Berrigans stands out in the sharpest relief. And while I doubt that theatre audiences have suddenly developed a taste for theology, there is a real hunger for stories about people who have stood up to corruption, even at great cost to themselves. Seen from the distance of today, when the word "resistance" is used so freely and yet has never meant so little, when a sarcastic tweet is considered the height of rebellion against the status quo, the willingness of the Berrigans and their comrades to put their lives on the line, risking years of imprisonment for their beliefs, seems, well, saintly. In their adamant opposition to the Vietnam War, the Berrigans pioneered a series of stunningly effective actions against the instruments of war. For example, as members of the Catonsville Nine, they entered a Selective Service System office in Catonsville, Maryland, absconded with the files of young men classified 1A (meaning they had no deferments and were dead certs for the draft) and, using homemade napalm, burned them in the parking lot.

Today, it's hard to imagine the shock waves caused by this event, especially in a church so closely associated at the time with the American establishment. It was one thing for long-haired youths to take part in campus protests; it was another thing entirely for members of the clergy to stage political acts of vandalism. (I well remember the controversy it stirred up in my working-class Irish Catholic family: Bing Crosby never acted like that in Going My Way.) What bemuses today is that the Berrigans earned such scorn from their coreligionists simply because they took Christ at his word, especially in the little matter of the Sixth Commandment.

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine was edited by Daniel Berrigan from the transcripts of their trials. Presented to great acclaim Off Broadway in 1971, it transferred to the Lyceum Theatre, where it faded away in less than a month, even with a cast consisting of the cream of New York character actors, including Mason Adams, Biff McGuire, Michael Moriarty, Joe Ponazecki, Josef Sommer, Helen Stenborg, Sam Waterston, and James Woods. Apparently, Broadway wasn't the right venue to debate the war that consumed the nation, creating divisions as daunting as those facing us in 2019.

It's reasonable to wonder if the original script, a scrapbook of testimonies from the trial, would, seen in a straightforward production, have the same impact today. Cummings has revised the text to include, among other things, updates on the ultimate fates of the participants. This is fair enough, as is the decision to parcel out the text among three actors who flip the roles among themselves; it is especially interesting to have Asian American performers. It's fascinating to see them sifting through records of the Asian war that, not so long ago, tore this country apart. But in this production even the most gripping of the play's passages is forced to do battle with an army of distracting stage effects.

Peiyi Wong's striking set design places a collage of 1960s detritus -- represented by pages from Life Magazine, covering everything from images of the war to ads for household appliances -- on an arrangement of old-fashioned desks, complete with period lamps. Overhead is a low-hanging light rig, dominated by a series of striplights fitted with diffusion filters to look like standard workplace fixtures of the day. When the action opens with a sweeping lighting cue and the sound of helicopters, followed by an actor playing a vinyl recording of "Eve of Destruction," we are evocatively whisked back to those tumultuous times.

Those times are powerfully brought to life in passages that bare the national wounds of the era. Mary Murphy, the chief clerk in the Selective Service office, offers her view of the attack, and, perhaps speaking for Richard Nixon's so-called silent majority, says, trembling with anger, "I had never been treated with such bad manners, disrespect, and uncharity in my whole life." (Ironically, we learn that, taking part in a reunion with the Catonsville survivors decades later, she said, "All of those years I thought they were devils, but they're just people.") Several of the accused offer mordant comments, drawn from personal experience of working with the poor, about police brutality and institutional racism, most of which could come from today's newsfeed. The married defendants Thomas and Marjorie Melville report, based on their missionary experiences, that the US government routinely murdered Guatemalans deemed, accurately or not, to be Communists. Another defendant, George Mische, notes that one US group in Latin America, the American Institute for Free Labor Development, which was a production of the University of Chicago, was in fact a CIA front. Listening to them, one is struck, dismayingly, by how little the world has changed in half a century.

In what may be the most disturbing account, Daniel Berrigan recalls how he and Howard Zinn, later the author of A People's History of the United States, were invited to Hanoi by the North Vietnamese government. There, they were taken to a kind of repository and shown the remains of citizens killed by the US Army. "We saw a section of skull perforated by our pellet bombs," Daniel says, using words that are both grisly and eerily beautiful. "The surface wound was very small, but within the brain the wounds grew much larger as the pellets had ricocheted again and again off the interior of the skull until the whole brain was crossed with ribbons." He also describes a picture of a napalm victim, "the pitiful, crisped remains of a woman, burned to a twisted black remnant. In the middle of this image, there remained only a patch of flesh as evidence of her unborn child." Of course, the prosecuting attorney all but dismisses the priest as a communist stooge. But it's impossible not to be moved when, reminded that he is facing years in jail, another defendant, Thomas Lewis, replies, "In a sense, it was a choice between life and death. It was a choice between saving one's soul and losing it." In its best moments, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine shines a light on the moment when the American consensus -- the widely held belief that, whatever its flaws, the US was a benign actor in the world -- began to come apart.

This is such powerful, authentic material that it doesn't need the lily-gilding it gets here, most of which has an undermining effect. Cummings has elected to put the audience onstage at the Abrons Art Center, occupying pews on all four sides of the set. It's an arrangement that reminds me of the joke from The Producers, in which Max Bialystock recalls a production that employed "theatre-in-the-square: Nobody had a good seat!" And so it is here: No matter where you sit -- a general admission policy is used -- virtually every seat merits the warning "partial obstruction." One is forever craning one's neck to get a glimpse of whoever is speaking -- unless he or she is standing with his or her back to one, which is often.

There's also a tendency to underline every moment unnecessarily, shortchanging the text's plainspoken power. Some of the more incisive speeches are weakened by Fan Zhang's portentous horror-film music, or by R. Lee Kennedy's light cues, which sometimes put actors and audience under a torrid police-interrogation glare. This insistence on ginning up the text extends to the performances. The great Mia Katigbak underplays skillfully, especially as the defense attorney, but she alone seems to understand that the words need no additional coloration. Her colleagues David Huynh and Eunice Wong are given to overemoting, as if signaling to the audience how moved they are by it all; you can see them acting, and it feels ulterior and unconvincing.

And, as is often the case in Cummings' productions, there are moments that leave one simply baffled. The use of various period songs is effective, but why does the action come to a full stop for a mini-listening party featuring a Rosemary Clooney-style pop singer in a lush arrangement of "Look to the Rainbow" from Finian's Rainbow? (Having ample time for my mind to wander during this lengthy pause, I came up with a conspiracy theory: Francis Ford Coppola directed the film of Finian's Rainbow in 1968, the year of the Catonsville incident, and he went on to make Apocalypse Now, one of the definitive anti-Vietnam War films, starring Martin Sheen, who later played Daniel Berrigan in a film, so maybe....? This is what happens when you sit in the dark for several minutes watching actors do nothing at all.)

The final passage sums up the production's strengths and weaknesses. Cummings has inserted a flash forward that reveals what happened to each of the defendants, much of which is deeply moving. (In a restaurant, one of the Berrigans is personally thanked by a young man whose file was destroyed.) But he follows this with an overreaching coup de théâtre involving a heretofore unused audience area of the auditorium, a burst of light, and plenty of fog. What should be a moment of deep contemplation looks like the end of a spaghetti western, when the cast departing into the sunset.

Ultimately, I began to wonder: What attracted Cummings to this material? The Berrigans and their companions lived lives of radical simplicity, dedicated to words and ideas that had the power to pierce the heart. And yet this production feels overblown, a black-and-white film noir colorized for popular consumption. The words of the Catonsville Nine are, if anything, more relevant than ever; do they really need all this artificial sweetening? -- David Barbour

(6 February 2019)

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