Sunday, August 19, 2007

Catonsville Nine

The formerly glamorous Culver Theater was a mere shell of itself when we moved here nine years ago. At one time the premier venue for showcasing movies produced by MGM Studios, located right across the street, the theater had fallen into disrepair by the early 1990s. City officials were debating what to do with the decaying relic, when actor Kirk Douglas and his wife Anne stepped up and donated over $2 million to convert the old movie house into a live theater stage. Two years later, the Culver reopened, appropriately enough, as the 300-seat Kirk Douglas Theatre, part of the Center Group theaters that include the Mark Taper and Ahmanson in downtown L.A. With its marquee encircled by blazing white neon lights, the Douglas has become a dramatic landmark in Culver City’s renovated downtown area.

I have vague memories of seeing “Gone with the Wind” at the old Culver Theater when the film was rereleased in the 1970s, so I’ve been dying to see its new interior. But I haven’t been all that excited by the plays offered there—that is, until last Wednesday when I opened the L.A. Times and saw that the Actors’ Gang was going to stage a one-time-only reading of “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.” Set in 1968, the play features actual testimony of the nine Catholic activists who were found guilty of stealing and burning military draft records in protest of the Vietnam War. The much-celebrated Daniel Berrigan, a poet and priest who was one of the Nine, wrote the play while on the lam. Eighty-six years old, he is still active in the peace movement.

Although the reading was a fundraiser and, therefore, cost an arm-and-a-leg ($250) to attend, I decided to go because the subject matter is as timely today as it was forty years ago; plus I greatly admire the Actors’ Gang, which tends to stage progressively liberal plays that other more well-known theater troupes wouldn’t touch. Actor/activist Tim Robbins is the Gang’s artistic director.

The ticket price was a little too steep for Tim, so I went alone. I wasn’t sure what to wear to such an event, especially since I assumed the audience would be filled with rich, if progressive (!), celebrities. I settled on a new dress I had recently bought but had never worn: black cotton spandex top with a festively full skirt attached—very much the type of thing Rita Moreno would have worn in “West Side Story.” I dressed it up a bit with some jewelry, but then dressed it down by wearing nice flip-flops. I thought I had all bases covered until I got there and saw that, even though some women were as dressed up as me, most were very casual in denim skirts or jeans. I guess if you pay $250 for a theater ticket, you buy the right to dress comfortably!

The theater was intimate and still very new, but all vestiges of its previous life are now gone. In fact, this could have been any of the many recently refurbished live theaters in Los Angeles, except that this one is only 10 minutes from home and there’s plenty of free street parking. I was very disappointed.

I read later that Jeremy Piven, whom I love from HBO's "Entourage," and actress Sharon Stone were in the audience, but I didn't see them. I did recognize Marg Helgenberger, of “CSI,” seated two rows in front of me, however. (She’s much more attractive in person!). The star power on-stage more than made up for the lack of other famous people in the seats.

Starring as Daniel Berrigan was none other than Martin Sheen, president Jed Bartlet on “The West Wing” and one of my all-time favorite orators. Toward the end of the play, he gave a speech that practically brought the house down. Tim Robbins played Berrigan’s priest brother Philip, who masterminded the Catonsville incident. He also delivered an antiwar speech that completely resonated with today’s situation in Iraq.

Rounding out the cast were Neil Patrick Harris, whom I’ve loved ever since he spoofed himself in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” Camryn Manheim (late of “The Practice”), Beau Bridges, Keith Carradine, Sandra Oh (from “Grey’s Anatomy”), Mike Farrell, who had some sort of foot ailment and so did his entire performance from a wheelchair, Frances Conroy (the mother in “Six Feet Under”), Jason Ritter (late of “Joan of Arcadia”), Anthony Zerbe, who had starred in the original “Catonsville Nine” play in the late 1960s, Dakin Matthews, and Tonya Pinkins. Phew! The reading was a little rough around the edges—apparently they had little time to rehearse—but it was amazing nonetheless. The message—burning military service records to prevent the burning of children in war—was not lost on all of us who hate what George Bush is doing in Iraq.

There was a reception with the performers afterward out in the lobby. I saw people walking by with small plates filled with asparagus spears and other hors d’oeuvres. I grabbed a tasty piece of carrot cake and then quietly slipped out as the schmoozing began. Time to go home and do a little research on Daniel Berrigan and the Catonsville Nine.


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