If you check ibdb.com for the listing of the cast of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, which opened on Broadway in 1971, you’ll find it numbered sixteen (including such notables as Mason Adams, Michael Moriarty, Josef Sommer, Helen Stenborg, Sam Waterston, and James Woods). The new off-Broadway production from the Transport Group features a cast of three – two women (Mia Katigbak and Eunice Wong) and one man (David Huynh).
Those of us who were alive in the Sixties remember the Catonsville Nine as a group led by the Berrigan brothers, two Catholic priests. They siezed the folders of a few hundred draft-eligible men, poured home-made napalm on the pile and set it on fire. The idea was to remove those whose names were on the files from the selective service system and save them from being called up to fight and maybe die in what the Berrigans and many others in America at the time believed to be an illegal and immoral war in Vietnam. (I believed it, too.)
Jack Cummings III, who directed and revised the script (originally written by Daniel Berrigan with some assistance from Saul Levitt), is revisiting devices he used in his revelatory 2014 production of I Remember Mama (which was cast entirely with women over 60). In that staging, the audience surrounded the action on four sides, and tables on the stage were filled with artifacts of the domestic life of the family in John Van Druten’s play. In Catonsville, the audience again sits on four sides, surrounding several office desks jammed together. The artifacts displayed this time are mounds of file folders, photographs and news clippings dating from the Sixties. At the beginning, the cast make their entrance wordlessly and begin to examine a number of these items. The image of three Asian-American actors looking through this material can’t help but remind us of the racial component of the action. The Berrigans, after all, were trying to prevent the young men from killing and being killed by Asians.
Yes, the production works. The three actors morph into the various characters. Often they switch roles in mid-speech. It’s a conceit that courts confusion, but the work is so precise that everything is clear.
The staging reminded me of another radical interpretation of a text I saw recently, the Elevator Repair Group’s Gatz, the epic reading/performing of the entire text of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby. There, too, office desks. There, too, readers who begin haltingly and then find themselves sucked into the text. Gatz premiered in 2010. Has Cummings drawn inspiration from it? Who knows? Like I say, it works.
Oh, there are times when Cummings lays it on a little thick technically. One passage is played under lights turned up so brightly that I felt as if I were in a communal tanning salon. But mostly, Cummings has allowed three actors to convey compelling text with passion and clarity.
Watching this in 2019, an audience can’t help but note the warnings of illegal actions taken by a president of the United States. Here we are again.