The Trial of the Catonsville Nine Theatre Review - A Timeless Tale of Morality Versus Justice

It seemed a bit random, but I thought it was cool nonetheless. As I turned from Venice Boulevard onto Culver Boulevard in Culver City, I saw them: two women, demonstrating. They wagged yellow signs “Honk for Peace” .

"The Trial of the Catonsville Nine" now playing at The Actor's Gang in Culver City, CA

So I did. It was just two of them, and I thought they could use the encouragement. Once I arrived at the Ivy Substation, located at the Culver City Park, I discovered the demonstrators were part of The Actor’s Gang Company, takes the concept of preshow to a whole new level in their latest production The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.

In the spring of 1968, nine U.S. citizens who were opposed to Vietnam War took more than sic hundred files of potential inductees and destroyed them, burning them with napalm. Priests, a nun, a teacher, a nurse and an artist burned the files in protest of the war and used their arrests to draw attention to the nation’s questionable participation in the conflict and how the war was a cycle of misbehavior on behalf of a government that is supposed to reflect the nation’s morality on a worldwide stage. 

The Burning

The play is a series of testimonies and court room excerpt from that trial. Opening with an exciting pantomimed re-enactment of the taking of the files, and the burning, the show falls into the rigid structure of the courtroom procedures of witnesses, testimony, objections and outbursts. Each person on trial persisted in trying to a bit of personal history that brought them to their ultimate act of civil disobedience. And each defendant was ceremonially shutdown and ordered to speak about a crime that they all had already conceded to committing. The play introduces nine differing worldviews that converge on the similar ideal that their government is acting within the letter of the law, but outside the national morality it is charged with representing.

While there are many parallels to be drawn from the government’s activities then and the state of affairs in our government today, this play lends itself to an audience with a predisposed interest in politics and history. The arguments are compelling, particularly in view of the way The Nine insist that their actions must be judge through a glass of the personal conscience. The effort of the Nine to be judged by the spirit of the law of our land rather than by the perfect letter of the law is again compelling. It’s an enigmatic struggle that will be argues continually.

"The Catonsville Nine" offer explanations rather than defense.

However, for the theatergoer looking for something other than intellectual drama, there is little that happens. The play is a collage of storytelling and personas that beg for understanding and quite frankly for someone to listen. The conflict plays out in the form of rhetoric; it is after all, a courtroom drama. The feeling of confinement works against this show. The Trial of the Catonsville Nine is a play that asks concentration and focus from it’s audience, because we never leave this one room filled with peaceful, none-violent people. We know nothing is going to happen beyond verbal exchange. There is an valiant attempt in the way of staging to keep the energy alive with the continual shifting between characters and amongst the performers with each new defendant that tells his or her story.

Ironically the play suffered with the same obstacle as the defendants, fighting to get people to understand who they are and their motives through their personal stories and experiences. When all the law is interested in is one specific action. The audience has to be emotional invested in the characters to sign on to this drama. Unfortunately, because of the similarities in tone and background, there is not much time to get to know these characters well, so one can only sign on as sympathetic to their motives and cause.

"Is there a difference between breaking the law and committing a crime?"

(l to r) Adele Robbins, George Kersos, Cameron Dye and Corey G. Lovett in "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine"

The play is set on an enormous risen stage with only a few benches, changes, podiums and a signed risen platform upstage upon which stood a judge and her stand. A gigantic American flag hangs against the back wall, shadowed by a translucent parachute. The design, down to the costuming is simplistic, clean and effective. Cameron Dye stands out with an impressive turn as David Durst and one of the voice of the Defense Counsel.

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine is the current production of The Actor's Gang through March 21, 2008 at:

The Actor's Gang
Ivy Substation
9070 Venice Blvd.
(corner of Culver and Venice Blvds.)
Culver City, CA 90232
Thursday, Fridays, Saturdays @ 8pm
Sundays @ 2pm

Tickets: $15-$25,

Photo Credit: Kim Zsebe


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