Originally staged by the Odyssey Theater Ensemble in 1979, this Ron Sossi-Frank Condon scripted sojourn through a historic event offers a telling, if one-sided, glimpse at the competing cultures that flailed against each other amid the civil rights/anti-Vietnam War movements of the late ’60s. Helmer Condon impressively choreographs an impassioned 36-member ensemble through the selected highlights of a five-month trial that called into question the U.S. judicial system’s ability to be fair and impartial when dealing with a dedicated effort of civil disobedience.
Although “The Chicago Conspiracy Trial” is culled from the actual trial court transcripts, the legiter doesn’t delve deeply into the question of the eight defendants’ culpability for what happened at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention. The production unabashedly tries the trial itself, highlighting the perceived travesty of justice inflicted on the defendants by presiding Judge Julius Hoffman (George Murdock), federal prosecutor Thomas Aquinas Foran (John Ross Clark) and his associate Richard Schultz (Brian Reid).
The defense team, led by William Kunstler (Kent Minault), and the defendants come off as vociferous but impotent complainers as the prosecution nonchalantly ramrods its case, reinforced by an apparent rigging of the jury, Hoffman’s often comically prejudicial rulings in the prosecution’s favor, the exclusion of evidence about the Vietnam War as irrelevant to the case and the gagging and chaining of Black Panther activist Bobby Seale (Darius Ever Truly), who constantly disrupts the court proceedings by insisting that he be allowed to defend himself.
With the resolution of the trial a well-telegraphed no-brainer, the theatrical veracity of this work is underscored by the often-colorful portrayals of its participants. In a riveting, tour-de-force performance, Murdock (who originated the role in ’79) inhabits the soul of 74-year-old Hoffman, ferociously marshalling his diminishing mental faculties into all-out combat against the motley group of peace activists he considers an affront to the dignity of his courtroom.
In the lawyer faceoffs, the most compelling participants are Chuck Raucci’s Leonard Weinglass for the defense and Clark’s prosecutor Foran. The growing frustration at the escalating inequity of the court proceedings appears to tangibly weigh on Weinglass as he valiantly struggles to achieve fairness from a judge who constantly fails to pronounce his name correctly. Clark’s Foran exudes a maddening calmness and detachment during his summation, offering a plausible indictment of the defendants as calculating perpetrators of “evil.”
Among the defendants, Andy Hirsh’s Abbie Hoffman is comically poignant as the irreverent prankster who went to Chicago merely to make a statement and have some fun. And Grady Lee Richmond’s impressive portrayal offers a transcendently self-contained Allen Ginsberg whose matter-of-fact presentation of the facts of his experience at the convention riots makes the cross-examining prosecutors appear foolish.
The production is enhanced greatly by the trial setting of Adam Blumenthal and the period-correct costumes of Lauren Tyler.