The Chicago Conspiracy Trial
by Willard Manus
By bringing back THE CHICAGO CONSPIRACY TRIAL, the Odyssey has recaptured not only the fire and excitement of the Sixties but of its own early days as a theatre company. The Odyssey first produced the play--compiled by artistic director Ron Sossi and his then-associate Frank Condon from trial transcripts--back in 1979, winning acclaim from audiences and critics alike. TRIAL ran for seven months and put the Odyssey on L.A.'s theatrical map as the place to go for gutsy political drama.
Over the years the Odyssey has followed up with productions of socially-conscious plays by Brecht, Freed and Berkoff, to name but a few. Strong and successful as some of those shows were, none quite had the impact of TRIAL, which truly did deliver a wallop to the jaw of the audience.
Now Sossi and Condon (artistic director of Sacramento's River Stage) have teamed up again to remount TRIAL, this time with a new cast--except for George Murdock, who reprises his role as the irascible, combative Judge Julius Hoffman. Murdock, a veteran character actor, won prizes for his work in the 1979 production; it's a pleasure to report that time hasn't dimmed his skills; if anything, he's more assured and charismatic this time around, the sparkplug of the play.
TRIAL takes place in Hoffman's courtoom (designed & lit by Adam Blumenthal). The time is 1969, when the Viet Nam war was in full swing and the U.S. was in conflict over it, with pro- and anti-war factions battling it out in Congress, on the airwaves, and in the streets. The turmoil had come to a head in Chicago a year earlier, at the time of the Democratic Convention, when various leftwing groups decided to hold a protest rally aimed at persuading the delegates to nominate an anti-war candidate.
Among the leaders of these groups were the Black Panther, Bobby Seale (played with blazing intensity by Darius Ever Truly, who was killed tragically by a mugger two weeks after this review was written); the pacifist and civil rights activist, David Dellinger (Rod Britt); and such anarchist-minded "Yippies" as Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman (John Pollono, David Mauer & Andy Hirsch, respectively).
It came out later that the FBI, Chicago's Mayor Daley and his police force colluded to incite the lefties to riot as a way of discrediting their anti-war stance. Violence erupted in Lincoln Park, resulting in the mass arrest of rally leaders. Their eventual trial was overseen by Judge Hoffman, with William Kunstler (the able Kent Minault) representing the Chicago Eight, except for Seale, who ended up trying to defend himself, only to be bound and gagged by Hoffman, who took issue with his angry black-power outbursts.
The trial, as the play shows, became a combination of Alice in Wonderland, three-ring circus and, as one defendant put it, a medieval torture chamber (thanks to the spectacle of Seale being strapped into a courtoom chair with a rag stuffed in his mouth). The Yippies were rude, irreverent and outrageous, constantly challenging Hoffman's authority (and the "corrupt" system he symbolized). The judge, way over his head in stormy judicial waters, reacted equally impulsively and loudly, often cutting Kunstler off and deferring to the prosecution's lawyers (well-played by John Ross Clark and Brian Reid) just about every step of the way. (Hoffman was later reprimanded by an appeals court for his prejudicial conduct).
Murdock turns Hoffman into a largely comic figure, a Magoo-like oddball blind to all aspects of counter-cultural behavior. He also regularly mispronounces names, confuses one defendant with another, and stares at the bead-wearing, long-haired, ohm-chanting witness for the defense, poet Allen Ginsburg (Grady Lee Richmond), as if he had just slithered out from under a rock.
Staged by Condon as an environmental piece (with the audience as jury and Sixties songs and slogans raising the rafters), the Odyssey's revival production of TRIAL moves along swiftly and rambunctiously. The play not only lives again but comes off, alas, as more relevant than ever with the nation presently embroiled in another unpopular war.
(Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda. 310-477-2055 or visit odysseytheatre.com)