It sure doesn’t look like a courtroom where a trial would take place.
If you go to the Abrons Arts Center to see THE TRIAL OF THE CATONSVILLE NINE, you won’t be in the usual auditorium where the comfortable seats are. Instead, you’ll be relegated to the actual stage where hard church pews with no arm rests will greet you and your gluteus maximus.
Seconds after you’ve sat – and are already uncomfortable — you may be longingly looking at those seats you see in the distance below. Nevertheless, for the next 90 intermissionless minutes, they’ll be denied you.
Are church pews a way of acknowledging that a priest masterminded the events of May 17, 1968? On that day, Father Daniel Berrigan and eight colleagues destroyed nearly 400 draft records in Catonsville, Maryland. They weren’t going to see young men subjected to the draft and run the risk of being sent on a “tour” of Vietnam.
The few rows of pews surround the rectangular playing area where desks have been set up chock-a-block. On them are enough papers and photographs to fill more scrapbooks than a lifelong sentimental centenarian has on his shelves.
Onto the set walk three Asian-American performers – one man, two women – who start sifting through the debris. Because Playbills will be denied you until you exit, you’re well within your rights to assume that these three are living in the here-and-now and are looking back on that half-century-old event. After they peruse newspaper clippings, clearly other performers will emerge and re-enact the actual trial for us.
No such luck. Your heart may sink when it sinks in that you’re only going to see these three people for an hour-and-a-half during the “trial.”
And yes, quotation marks must be around the word “trial.” This seems to be a strange type of memory play where the cast plays the nine defendants at some times, a prosecutor at another, a defense attorney at yet another as well as a judge. That places quite the onus on you who may well find the conceit too taxing to tell who’s who. The artificiality takes away the usual nail-biting tension found in stage courtroom trials.
Occasionally these characters revert to becoming their 2019 selves and read reports of what happened to the conscientious objectors in the years after the trial had ended. That’s when you’ll realize that this is not the actual script that Broadway saw in June, 1972 (and not a day longer – not that such a play could have ever been regarded by producers as a box-office bonanza).
That original production’s credits stated “Written by Daniel Berrigan; text prepared for New York production by Saul Levitt.” The latter had had one previous Broadway outing THE ANDERSONVILLE TRIAL, another courtroom drama. Levitt’s contributions to CATONSVILLE have now apparently been excised, for when you do receive your Playbill you won’t find his name.
What is at the very bottom of the credits is “Directed & Adapted by Jack Cummings III” for his Transport Group.
Every artistic director must be aware of the bottom line. CATONSVILLE had a cast of 16 during its Broadway engagement. Cummings apparently wanted to tell this lest-we-forget story but knew that his company just couldn’t afford to pay a baker’s dozen more performers.
That brings up the age-old theatrical question: “If you can’t do it right, should you do it at all?”
After seeing the production on Super Bowl Sunday, I was reminded of the NFL championship game 11 years ago when the Patriots, who’d been undefeated all season long, lost to the Giants. Eighteen wins; one loss. And that’s Cummings, whose directorial efforts far more often win than lose. But, sad to say, here’s a loss in which he’s defeated by his own concept.
CATONSVILLE is, as all courtroom dramas are, a play of all talk and no action. Thus, you’ll want to hear every word of each pro and con argument. Unfortunately, the actual stage of a theater was never designed with acoustics in mind, so the unmiked actors are hard to hear.
And if that’s not enough, they often have their backs to you. There’s a reason that courtroom dramas are staged under proscenium arches and have their characters face us at virtually every second.
You may rebut by saying that theater-in-the-round staging has been a time-honored concept for almost 80 years. True, but for the most part, it’s been the province of summer stock musicals. There you wouldn’t suffer all that much if you missed a lyric or two; the melody would carry you along.
Missing a line of court testimony is another matter. Many a court case has turned on a single statement. In GROSS INDECENCY, Oscar Wilde made a witty joke that inadvertently revealed his lust for men, which sealed his miserable fate. So in CATONSVILLE, you must be given the opportunity to hear every word on the chance that one of them will swing the verdict – or your opinion — in one way or another.
Exacerbating this – in fact, horribly exacerbating this – is that Cummings has had sound designer Fan Zhang not only add ominous noises but compose music, too. You’ll undoubtedly miss important pieces of information because the never-welcome too-loud sounds and much-too-loud music come in far, far too often. For “incidental music,” it’s hardly incidental.
But it’s certainly intrusive. Does Cummings not trust that the material itself has enough drama that he must evoke some by these artificial means?
I’ve seen courtroom dramas as popular as WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, INHERIT THE WIND and A FEW GOOD MEN all the way down to THE LOVE SUICIDE AT SCHOFIELD BARRACKS (a 1972 play that ran five performances but was damn good). I never heard a note in any one of them and didn’t miss hearing a melody.
And let me know when they start piping in Muzak into genuine courtroom trials.
Considering that Cummings hasn’t given us a literal courtroom drama (which would have been much more welcome), perhaps judging it by these standards is unfair. Maybe he felt that if you’re into American history of the ‘70s — or were around and have a good memory — you know how this trial turned out. If you weren’t, he might assume that you can guess because the defendants seem to have no interest in getting themselves out of napalm-hot water. They didn’t even ask their lawyer to approve the jury. They take pride in their “crime of despair, anguish and hope” rather than fear the consequences.
Staunch Catholics throughout history have become martyrs because they wouldn’t give up their faith; here we have martyrs of a different kind. This continues all the way to a “Beau Geste” moment at the end where again the nine show they believe their lives have had profound meaning.
So you’ll want to hear all that’s being said. Why run the risk of missing pungent lines? “We decided to burn papers instead of children,” says one. You don’t actually see the infamous photograph of the naked Vietnamese girl running in agony, but the line helps bring it into your mind’s eye.
To be fair, though, Cummings might have felt that because the defense was so passive that there was no way the accused could walk free from this; thus, it wasn’t your average trial. “I expect to be in prison for exposing the war,” says one.
Which one? Who remembers? That’s another problem with this type of concept for a courtroom trial. We don’t get to know the people as individuals, what with all the mix-and-matching – which makes us less emotionally involved. The exception may be the Melvilles, a devotedly married couple whose main fear about being imprisoned is that they’ll be separated for years to come.
Otherwise, you literally can’t tell the players without a scorecard. Even with one you can’t, for when you’re eventually awarded your Playbill, you’ll find the three performers – David Huynh, Mia Katigbak and Eunice Wong – each referred to as “Actor.”
Even if you could hear all the arguments, you probably won’t change your mind. If you enter the theater believing that “two wrongs don’t make a right” — or if you’re a by-any-means-necessary type — you’ll probably walk out with the same feelings.
As you may have heard, despite that loss to the Giants (and to the Eagles last year, too), the Patriots got back on the winning Super Bowl track two years ago and on Sunday, too. Jack Cummings III will be back to emerge victorious, too.