Remains Theatre

I am an orphan of America. I live in Woodstock Nation. It is a nation of alienated young people dedicated to cooperation versus competition, to the idea that people should have a better means of exchange than property . . . –Abbie Hoffman

That nation, Hoffman confessed on the witness stand in the Dirksen Federal Building, lived more in his mind than in the world. But to millions, his admission didn’t make the concept any less real. Certainly the U.S. government took the Woodstock nation seriously, from the moment that it tried to get in the way of the Vietnam war. Who cares about drugs and free love–these traitors were trying to save lives from American foreign policy!

It’s bizarre how quickly old passions flare up, as if yesterday’s battles really were fought only yesterday. It’s a reaction that has nothing to do with whatever nostalgia for the 60s the revival of Hair hoped–but failed–to exploit. Watching The Chicago Conspiracy Trial you feel an old wound peeled open. The only difference is that 23 years ago American dissent was a mass movement; today it’s a blip on the radar screen of 90s gung-ho gulf war jingoism.

There are times when you can’t find neutral ground. The Chicago Democratic National Convention took place in 1968, perhaps our country’s most revolutionary year in a century. In 1968 Chicago tasted an indelible disgrace–the “police riot,” as the Walker Commission would later term it. Grant and Lincoln parks were turned into bloody hunting grounds full of rabid cops.

That confrontation was replayed in court over a period of five months, from September 1969 to February 1970. Stage-managed long-distance by a paranoid Nixon White House, the infamous “Chicago Eight” trial tried to demonize a diverse group of antiwar activists. Accused of crossing state lines in a conspiracy to incite riots were Hoffman, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale (later forcibly removed for separate trial, thus reducing the group to the “Chicago Seven”). They were the first victims of a new federal anticonspiracy law, a panic-fueled edict that all but repudiated freedom of assembly. As the Chicago Eight hoped to show, the real conspiracy was the one the government had launched against the First Amendment.

The trial could have been called “Hoffman v. Hoffman.” The Chicago “conspirators” were led by yippie guru Abbie Hoffman and they faced Judge Julius J. Hoffman, a geriatric tyrant whose idea of judicial impartiality would have made Roy Bean blush. (Fortunately, the appeals courts agreed with this assessment and, condemning his bias, struck down Hoffman’s punitive sentences, a fact the play wrongfully fails to note.)

A generation later the ugly images of this travesty trial persist: an enraged Bobby Seale (leader of the Black Panther Party) gagged and manacled for trying to represent himself; the screams of “fascist” and “racist” leveled at Judge Hoffman; Dellinger’s teenage daughter screaming “Daddy, Daddy” as he was ejected from court; Judge Hoffman deliberately mangling the name of defense attorney Weinglass into “Winegrass” (which Abbie gleefully declared was his favorite combination of drugs); Allen Ginsberg chanting a mantra to calm the court; Abbie Hoffman denying there was a conspiracy by saying “We couldn’t agree on lunch.”

No question, the massive “failure to communicate” that infested Room 2303 of the Dirksen building mirrored the times with a vengeance.

The Chicago Conspiracy Trial is an attempt to re-create that pivotal chaos, an almost comic “theatrical arrangement” of the trial transcripts by Ron Sossi and Frank Condon that was a 14-month hit at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles in 1980. Considering its taut structure, convulsive outbursts, and combustible contrasts of character, it’s easy to see why.

The Chicago Trial in effect returns to the scene of the crime, and this rampaging midwest premiere from Remains Theatre may also prove a thoroughgoing hit. With 36 pile-driving actors working overtime, this staging by Condon is the wildest courtroom drama since Bailiwick Repertory’s Execution of Justice, which ridiculed another modern-day kangaroo court, the Harvey Milk trial.

The Chicago Conspiracy Trial assaults you from the start: if you come in the theater’s back entrance, “federal marshals” take you past long-haired “demonstrators” waving placards and frisk you as you enter the “courtroom.” The lobby is painted by John Musial in Day-Glo 60s colors, a la Peter Max, and hung with courtroom sketches and counterculture cartoons. The play begins by plunging directly and brutally into the past: while we hear Kate Smith belting out “God Bless America,” we see John Boesche’s slide projections of police atrocities.

The trial, with its absurdities, its weird fusion of random violence from the federal marshals and subversive antics from their opposition, is as funny as it is ugly. At the eye of this hurricane is Julius Hoffman: dithering, defensive, splenetic, pompous, and monumentally petty. He makes a federal case of a defense attorney resting his arm on the witness stand, upholds every objection from the prosecution, interrupts or otherwise prevents testimony he doesn’t like, finds a defendant’s refusal to rise when he does “contempt of court,” even threatens to revoke bail because the “conspirators” dared to criticize him in their fund-raising speeches. Hoffman all but advertises for a mistrial. George Murdock, repeating his triumph in LA, plays the judge like a vicious but doddering child, as humorless as the Chicago Eight are riotous.

However selective these excerpts from the trial, it’s impossible to believe there was ever a dull day at this legal circus; the clash of Establishment icons with the icons of the Age of Aquarius was too volatile. It all spills out in Remains’ bountiful and spontaneous production. Defendants rage at Hoffman’s “medieval torture chamber” where Bobby Seale can be mugged in public. A cop soberly testifies that he watched a couple have sex in a tree. Abbie Hoffman gives Julius Hoffman drug tips. The mayor of Chicago seethes as his convention-hall obscenities (and anti-Semitic outbursts at Abraham Ribicoff) are read into the record. You can laugh and cry and still be correct.

I admit I worried that Trial would rip a seminal protest out of its context or put it under glass, much as Steppenwolf did a different experience in The Grapes of Wrath. But Sossi and Condon have marshaled their raw material so well that this happening can’t turn into a freak show–1991 audiences will see both sides with a clarity we never had at the time.

Not surprisingly, this dynamite drama is the setting for a slew of superlative performances, the sharpest acting on one stage since Steppenwolf’s Balm in Gilead. Of course there’s Murdock’s testy triumph as Julius Hoffman, but you can also savor Gary Houston’s bully-boy pyrotechnics as prosecutor Thomas Foran and Larry Neumann Jr.’s anal-retentive rantings as his henchman, Richard Schultz.

From the defense there’s well-honed work from Del Close as Dellinger, a man who could crusade in his sleep; David Pasquesi as Abbie, remarkably like the real merry prankster; Ed Wheeler as Bobby Seale, eloquent in gagged silence as well as frenetic outburst; Bruce Jarchow as attorney William Kunstler, as dignified as Foran was rabid; and David Alan Novak as Leonard Weinglass, the most persistent defense lawyer an innocent activist could desire.

The rest of the cast deserve kudos for returning Remains to the fine ensemble work it pulled off in Puntila and His Hired Man, Road, and Highest Standard of Living.

Kevin Snow’s elegant courtroom set looks cloned from the Dirksen Federal Building, far too august for the proceedings. Sraa Davidson’s costumes are virtually archaeological and should trigger a ton of tie-dyed memories.

It would be tempting to dismiss this show as yet another case of past passion reduced to entertainment for the present. And if its shocks of recognition weren’t so true, The Chicago Conspiracy Trial couldn’t begin to touch us. As it is, the dangers it depicts are all too clear and present.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Y. Exit.