EmptyOdyssey Theatre, West Los Angeles
Through Dec. 16
First presented in 1979, "The Chicago Conspiracy Trial" has become over time a rite of political passage. The Frank Condon-Ron Sossi re-enactment of the 1969 trial of protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, based on a compression of the official transcripts, is as much a measure of the political temperature at the time of presentation as it is a theatrical experience.
Preceded by a simulated "demonstration" in the parking lots adjoining the theater, the play is more a series of tableaux than a conventional dramatic presentation. Using occasional freeze-action "snapshots" and a series of abrupt blackouts signaled by Judge Julius Hoffmann's hammering gavel, the performance has a herky-jerk momentum that propels it through its three onstage hours with only a few more reflective moments towards the end.
The performance is dominated by the antics of the judge, played by George Murdock, who created the role for the original 1979 production. With a Dickensian repertoire of winks, nods, grimaces and grins, sputtering away with a confused mix of blarney and anger, Murdock manages to be over the top and subtly nuanced at the same time. He is less an evil tyrant than an absurdist establishment totem who, by transforming the once-tangible terror of the trial into something significantly less threatening, allows us to gain profound perspective onto our own challenges as a democratic society.
Among the massive cast of 37, almost all of them playing powerfully within their roles, a few must be singled out. As Abbie Hoffman, Andy Hirsch nearly steals the show with his charm, charisma, and honeyed voice of cock-eyed reason. Darius Ever Truly's Bobby Seale commands the house whenever he stands to speak (his being carried, bound, gagged and shackled into the courtroom is the evening's most hair-raising moment).
As the defense attorneys, Kent Minault projects William Kunstler with world-weary compassion, while Chuck Raucci takes a risky corporate approach to Leonard Weinglass; both, however, seem overwhelmed by the courtroom shenanigans, as do the two prosecutors. Rod Britt makes David Dellinger a figure of deeply moving reason within an "Alice in Wonderland" world. As Jerry Rubin, David Mauer delights the audience with his capture of the manic energy and antics. And Grady Lee Richmond's Allen Ginsberg, in a stroke of inspired casting, creates an indelible portrait of the legendary beat poet.
When the start of the performance was briefly delayed one night by the I-5 freeway fire, Mauer led a discussion of the events of 1969. Although none in the audience had been directly involved, it was moving to hear some describe their participation in related anti-war activities. It was more moving when a former National Guard member, who had been in Chicago during the riots and had not been "unsympathetic" to the movement, described the awful humiliation of being the target of both the protesters' verbal and actual filth. The tension that this unexpected reminiscence created within the audience resonated later in the play itself as a quiet sadness for lives unalterably changed and liberties lost.
THE CHICAGO CONSPIRACY TRIAL
Presented by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
Playwrights: Ron Sossi, Frank Condon
Director: Frank Condon
Producer: Ron Sossi
Set, lighting designer: Adam Blumenthal
Costume designer: Lauren Tyler
Sound designer: Michael Mortilla
Dramaturg: Lynn Damme
Assistant director: Carol Becker
Production stage manager: Amanda Bierbauer
Graphic designer: Peter Simpson Cook
Judge Julius Hoffmann: George Murdock
William M. Kunstler: Kent Minault
David Dellinger: Rod Britt
Abbie Hoffman: Andy Hirsch
Bobby Seale: Darius Ever Truly
Jerry Rubin: David Mauer
Leonard Weinglass: Chuck Raucci
Allen Ginsberg: Grady Lee Richmond
Thomas Aquinas Foran: John Ross Clark
Richard Schultz: Brian Reid
Rennie Davis: Patrick Flanagan
Tom Hayden: John Pollono
Lee Weiner: John Alton
John Froines: Jon Erikson