The Trial of the Catonsville Nine
By Daniel Berrigan
Direction by Jon Kellam
Presented by The Actors' Gang
Through March 21, 2009
Photo: Kim Zsebe.
If you remember the 60's -- forgetting the aphorism that if you remember the 60's you were not really there -- and you cared about the anti-war movement, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine will bring back memories of the anti-war movement that may have dimmed. With only a little license taken for rearranging some sequences, it is composed from the actual transcript of one of the famous trials of the time; there is no need to question, 'was this really how it happened?' It did. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest, and the author of this play was the motivating force behind the Catonsville protest.
In 1968, Daniel, his brother Phillip -- also a priest -- and seven others entered the draft board #33 of Catonsville Maryland, removed hundreds of files of young men classified as 1A, fit for military service. The nine, dressed conventionally, hair well trimmed, took the files outside the office and in plain daylight burned them using a homemade version of Napalm they had concocted from a recipe in the government's own Special Forces Handbook. They were all "Catholic Christians" who had spent years doing humanitarian work in places like Central America and Africa. They were outraged as they had seen the United States act to support despotic regimes and seen organized religion do nothing to stop the exploitation and carnage. Their purpose in burning the files was to draw attention to the outrages of the Vietnam war and the costs, both human and economic, to American citizens. They would not plea bargain. They wanted the image of god fearing Christians being led off to prison in chains splashed across the press. Berrigan actually evaded arrest for several years motivated by his desire that the protest stay in the news and not be forgotten.
Jon Kellam's staging is as bold and stark as the material. A huge American flag forms the background, and the courtroom is suggested by a large triangle on the stage with a podium for the judge, two benches and two chairs; the witness stands are sketched with simple posts and a rail. Nine actors played the parts of the defendants and the two lawyers. The devices of having eleven parts divided between nine actors, combined with choreographed movements to slightly rearrange the props, effectively moved the production from the strictly expository.
In 1968 America had the draft; sons of middle class citizens were being sent off to die in Vietnam; the war was much more immediate to a theater going audience than the current war in Iraq. Unfortunately, with all that the Actor's Gang got right, and given the fact that I do remember the 60's, I still found The Trial of the Catonsville Nine strangely unmoving. The lessons are important, parallels with the past few years are not hard to find, but as theater something was lacking.