Sep 26, 2009

Brisbane Festival: The Trial of the Catonsville Nine

What does it mean to struggle against injustice? What does it mean to "take action"? And how do you stand up to your own country when you wholeheartedly believe its policies and decisions are wrong?

These are questions at the core of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, one of the showpieces of the 2009 Brisbane Festival. A product of the Los Angeles theatre company The Actors' Gang (whose artistic director is Tim Robbins), it's a beautifully lyrical play about protest and revolution that enriches its courtroom drama structure with bold and dynamic physicality. It's playing at the Powerhouse Visy Theatre until Sunday 27 September - make all attempts to catch it if you can.

In 1968, nine Catholic activists - including priests Daniel and Phillip Berrigan - broke into the draft office in Catonsville, Maryland. They stole 378 files, poured homemade napalm over them, and burned them. Their act of civil disobedience was designed to save the lives of those young men from being conscripted to fight in Vietnam - a war they believed illegal, and morally inexcusable. The play - written by Father Daniel Berrigan himself - portrays their subsequent trial, with much of the actual testimony preserved in free verse.

The Actors' Gang's training methods draw primarily from commedia dell'arte, and the focus on physicality is evident. In order to keep what could be a static script engaging, Director Jon Kellam and Movement Director Melina Bielefelt have the actors carry out simple-looking yet deceptively complex choreography. They walk and weave across the stage to portray not only the nine accused, but defence and prosecution lawyers as needed (Adele Robbins - Tim's sister - is the only set character; she plays the judge). Using only benches and bannisters to form the courtroom, the staging results in The Trial of the Catonsville Nine being as much a dance as it is a drama.

But to only focus on the body would be to cruelly ignore the soul of this piece - and that is the soaring dialogue used to convey its message. A show about protesting war and the killing of innocents could come across as preachy; The Trial of the Catonsville Nine avoids that through the stunning imagery of its words (Father Daniel apologises "for burning paper instead of children") and the conviction with which its actors speak them. Vocal deliveries and characterisations are a triumph; there is no weak link among the cast.

Set against the backdrop of an American flag draped over a hanging parachute, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine alludes heavily to our modern times - notably the United States' involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. It leaves you wondering just how much courage you have, and whether you could stand up against foreign (and domestic) policies that were ill-advised, immoral or illegal. It's a thought-provoking piece of theatre that treats its audience intelligently; captivates it with sparkling writing and audacious concepts; and guts it with emotion and truth.

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