Left - Adele Robbins and George Ketsios. Cover - Cameron Dye, Andrew E Wheeler, Adele Robbins, Chris Schultz, Scott Harris, George Ketsios, Patti Tippo, Paige Lindsey White, Cory G Lovett. Photos - Kim Zsebe
The Trial of the Catonsville Nine is many things Australians dislike about Americans: political, patriotic and preachy.
But unlike the worst of the United States, it is also deeply questioning of its place in the world. It wears its jingoism with pride – an imposing stars and stripes flag provides a stark background to the courtroom drama – while prosecuting what impact that nationalist fervour has on the rest of humanity.
The exposition nor the argument come as any surprise: it is a true story, after all, reciting a time of uprising against colonialist war (Vietnam, specifically, though the parallels to Iraq now are obviously drawn); a sermon you might expect in a story of clergymen, from an acting troop founded and directed by one of Hollywood’s most garish bleeding-hearts in Tim Robbins.
Which is not to say this is bad theatre – it is brilliantly executed by some wonderful actors; tightly choreographed with real rhythm and infectious passion. And its ideas remain big, questioning the West’s involvement in Vietnam, familiarly perhaps, but going further to examine issues of faith and justice and the gaping chasm of greyness in between.
Catholic priests Daniel Berrigan and brother Philip (compelling performances from both Andrew E. Wheeler and Scott Harris respectively, though the entire Gang excels), along with seven of their activist flock, stand condemned for an act of civil disobedience. These nine had memories of working overseas, in Africa, and seeing the brutal aftermath of American colonialism. They watched the scenes from Vietnam and vowed not to remain silent.
In 1968, the group peacefully raided a military office at Catonsville and took hundreds of files on citizens eligible for the draft. They burned the documents outside with homemade napalm, the same insidious toxic cocktail American troops were dropping on Vietnamese villages. Says Daniel Berrigan: "Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children…” It galvanised an anti-war movement rising and rebelling across the country.
But their act was illegal and they would be tried. Before court they would admit their guilt of the crime but plead innocence – not mercy; there was a sense of martyrdom about their fight – on the grounds of attempting to stop a war they argued was a much more grievous crime against humanity. To try the war, they decided, they had to commit a crime and try themselves.
Daniel Berrigan wrote the original treatment in free verse in 1971. This latest production from The Actors’ Gang, directed by Jon Kellam and premiering in Los Angeles earlier this year, retains a poetic quality but intensifies its gaze on American exceptionalism with contemporary conflicts very much in the foreground. Great swathes of the script are ripped straight from court transcripts; stirring sermons on the horrors of foreign occupation and the destruction of a generation of Vietnamese.
Preachy, certainly, but equally powerful.
The audience is incapable of avoiding the big questions. We sit in judgement, presented the evidence as if watching from the jury box and continually warned by the Judge (a Judy-esque Adele Robbins) to decide the case on facts, not motivation and not our own conscience. They are guilty of the crime, certainly, but so much more is on trial. Is justice – in the grandiose sense – really served by sending them to prison?
We see the inadequacy of the law, hopelessly incapable of righting the wrong. We see the internal torment of people of faith, the power of a church that has instigated war before but also offers the humanity to end them. “No one knows God,” Philip Berrigan recites, “until one knows injustice.” We see Catholicism in parallel with these United States – decent and well-meaning, yet with the capacity for such brutal intolerance.
In a premature climax of the play, the giant star-spangled banner is lowered and carried down stage by the united court players. It is folded, hauntingly, in the same militaristic formation as if to bestow on a grieving war widow.
It was the death of America, at least as an ideal, in 1968. Except nobody learnt the lesson.
Brisbane Powerhouse and Brisbane Festival 2009 present
The Trial of the Catonsville Nine
The Actors’ Gang
Director Jon Kellam
Venue: Powerhouse Theatre
Dates: Thu 24 - Sun 27 Sep 09
Tickets: Full $47, Conc/ Groups $37, School $22