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Review: 'The Trial of the Catonsville Nine' at Actors' Gang

February 19, 2009 |  1:30 pm


On May 17, 1968, in Catonsville, Md., nine clean-cut Catholics — including two priests and a former nun — burned several hundred draft files using homemade napalm to protest American involvement in Vietnam. Their subsequent trial ignited a firestorm of controversy, and the group’s leader, Father Daniel Berrigan, went on the run rather than go to prison. When his play based on trial transcripts premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in 1971, Berrigan greeted the audience via recorded tape. He was still a fugitive.

Now the Actors’ Gang presents a lucid, impassioned revival of this free-verse courtroom drama, and “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine” shows at once how far, and how little, we’ve come. For Obama era youth who don’t know the story, the play offers a vivid history, and these devout activists demonstrate how powerfully religious principles can be harnessed to social change; both Daniel (Andrew E. Wheeler) and his brother, Philip (Scott Harris), argue with ferocious eloquence.

Launching the show with a witty “Mission: Impossible” pantomime of the “crime,” director Jon Kellam and movement trainer Melina Bielefelt choreograph the ensemble around an abstracted courtroom set, behind which looms an American flag and a parachute. (Of course, it’s the military-industrial complex that’s really on trial.) Jacqueline Reid’s stark lighting and Susan Dalian’s evocative late '60s costuming also heighten the atmosphere.

But despite the “Law & Order”-style sound cue used to button each scene, “Catonsville” isn’t exactly riveting courtroom theater. While one is humbled by the nine’s moral rigor, the play is more sermon than debate. The real drama lies in the conversion stories each defendant recounts — experiences after which they could not continue their lives as before. Bigotry in the South, bombing in Africa, murder in Guatemala: The Berrigans may have been on trial, but it’s the American government that is indicted here.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

“The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” The Actors’ Gang, Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 21. $25. (310) 838-GANG. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Photo: "The Trial of the Cantonsville Nine." Credit: Kim Zsebe.