Theater review by Regina Robbins
Government actions have led to the suffering and death of innocent people, both at home and abroad, but no one in Washington seems willing to take responsibility: It’s déjà vu all over again in the Transport Group’s revival of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine. In 1968, nine Catholic peace activists, led by priests (and brothers) Daniel and Philip Berrigan, were tried and convicted of destroying government records at a draft office in Catonsville, Maryland. Three years later, with the Vietnam War still raging and the group's members still serving their sentences, Daniel Berrigan’s play about the trial ran briefly on Broadway. This remarkable moment in political and theatrical history now comes roaring back to life with the fervor its subjects deserve.
Berrigan’s text, based on trial transcripts, gets a postmodern retooling from director Jack Cummings III; cuts are balanced with new material providing 21st-century updates on the trial’s participants. But plenty of parallels to current events come straight from the original script. “Of course, even the President must obey the law,” says the presiding judge, before admitting that, if he doesn’t, there’s not much to be done about it. (Or is there? Ask the ghost of Richard Nixon.) It’s hard to know how to feel about these echoes from the past. Angry? Sad? Fired up? Yes, and then some.
A coproduction with the National Asian American Theatre Company, Catonsville Nine is performed by three Asian-American actors—Mia Katigbak, Eunice Wong and David Huynh—who rise beautifully to the challenge of playing numerous different characters. Throughout the play, atrocities committed against Vietnamese civilians are described in brutal detail; those descriptions take on an even more haunting quality when the actors giving them have Asian faces. The superlative lights, sound and set combine to take us from government office to courtroom to a Vietnamese battlefield.
The Trial of the Catonsville Nine is activist theater in the best sense of the term. You won’t learn much about the defendants’ lives beyond their political activities, and the same argument tends to get rehashed repeatedly—but it’s a damn powerful argument. Asked why he decided to break the law, one of the Nine replies, “I just want to let people live.” Amen, brother.
Abrons Arts Center (Off Broadway). By Daniel Berrigan. Directed by Jack Cummings III. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hrs 25mins. No intermission.