More than half a century has passed since the Berrigan brothers, both of them priests, along with seven other Catholic activists, broke the law to protest the Vietnam War. On May 17, 1968, they entered the office of the local draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, grabbed boxes full of files, brought them to the parking lot, and set on fire the draft records of 378 young men who had been designated 1-A — about to be drafted. They used a homemade version of napalm, a chemical weapon that the U.S. military was using in the war. “I believe to pour napalm on pieces of paper is certainly preferable to pouring napalm on human beings,” said one of the participants, a nurse named Mary Moylan.
Three years after the ensuing trial, one of the defendants, Father Daniel Berrigan, wrote a play about it in free verse. Rewritten by Saul Levitt, relying mostly on court transcripts, “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine” ran on Broadway for 29 performances in June, 1971, with a 16-member cast including Sam Waterston and James Woods. Later that year, Gregory Peck produced a film version.
Now, the Transport Group is presenting what it calls a radical re-imagining of the play, in partnership with the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO.)
Director Jack Cummings III, Transport’s artistic director, is credited with adapting the script; there are updates on what happened to some of the people after the trial, mostly recounting when they died.
What’s changed most drastically is the staging. In place of 16 actors, there are now only three who juggle all the characters. All three of the performers are Asian-American: David Huynh, Mia Katigbak, and Eunice Wong
The audience joins the actors on the stage of the theater at the Abrons Art Center, sitting on benches that resemble those one might find in a courtroom, around a set of metal desks that one could find in a drab office. These desks, though, are all shoved together in the center, and every surface is covered with photographs that look as if they might be of Vietnamese civilians during the war; we’re never given a close look. (The set design is by Peiyi Wong). Lighting designer R. Lee Kennedy goes to town with the lights, alternating between madly flickering fluorescent, blindingly white, and disturbingly deep red. Sound designer Fan Zhang offers a dramatic underscoring through most of the 90-minute piece.
The actors begin and end the play by playing songs from the period on a record player.
At the very end, just before the three performers leave the stage and exit through the haze-filled auditorium, actor David Huynh plays Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It Is Worth,” which begins:
There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
The lyrics felt apt. There’s a powerful theatricality happening here in “The Trial of The Catonsville Nine,” but the reasoning behind some of the choices is not exactly clear.
The casting of Asian-American performers is certainly intriguing, especially David Huynh, the Vancouver-born son of Vietnamese refugees. At one point, Huynh speaks in Vietnamese while Mia Katigbak translates into English: “All men are created equal, they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights….” Huynh then tells us the words were from Ho Chi Minh’s 1945 Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
Choosing such a cast gets us thinking — about how much more ethnically diverse our society has become, perhaps about the oddness of a protest movement in defense of a people that didn’t include any of the people being defended.
But why just three performers? There is little effort to distinguish the different characters through change of voice or carriage; the male and female characters – defendants, witnesses, prosecution and judge — are divvied up indiscriminately among the one man and two women in the cast; the actors even sometimes portray the same character at different times in the show. It’s harder to be impressed by the actors’ dramatic emoting at any particular moment if we’re not certain who they are then.
Yes, the designers are reproducing the sensory assault of combat – such as the bright lights of a bomb raid – and, when the curtain closes and a door clangs shut during jury deliberations, we are meant to feel the claustrophobia that comes with a legal process that closes out conscience in the name of the law.
But does it all have to be so…aggressive? It’s as if the creative team was worried that the words would not be enough to engage us. As it turns out, they do engage us. On the stand, the defendants tell their fascinating stories — of what turned them into activists, of how it’s changed their lives, of the reasons for the revulsion they feel toward U.S. domestic and foreign policy. “The US government is not on trial,” the judge says repeatedly. But in a way, it is.
A priest and a nun met doing missionary work in Guatemala, at a time when U.S. military were conducting furtive assassinations. “We thought instead of talking about the life to come, perhaps we could do a little to help their conditions on this earth.” They both left their orders, and got married. But then Marjorie Melville didn’t want her new husband Thomas Melville to participate in the civil disobedience at the Selective Service office. She didn’t want him to go to jail so soon after they married. But he was stubborn, so she joined him.
“We were teachers, nurses, veterans, priests and nuns. All we wanted to prove is that ordinary people in small numbers could make a difference.”
The Trial of the Catonsville Nine
By Daniel Berrigan
Adapted and directed by Jack Cummings III.
Set and costume design by Peiyi Wong; lighting design by R. Lee Kennedy; sound design by Fan Zhang.
Cast: David Huynh, Mia Katigbak, and Eunice Wong
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
The Trial of the Catonsville Nine is on stage through February 23, 2019.