theater (reviews)

review: execution of justice

[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-EXECUTION.html]

EXECUTION OF JUSTICE

by Emily Mann
Directed by Gary Griffin
About Face Theatre at Victory Gardens Greenhouse
2257 N. Lincoln Avenue / (773) 871-3000
www.aboutfacetheatre.com
Through February 18, 2007

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
January 20, 2007

You know you have come to see a play about the fatal 1978 shootings of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and the first openly gay City Councilman Harvey Milk, about their colleague Dan White who killed them and ultimately himself, and the legal system’s response to all of this. Before the action begins in the About Face Theatre production, you view the brutally raw mesh playing surface and video screens displaying “San Francisco 1978” wonder about the kind of experience that lays before you. How intense will the playwright and the production team make this already intense topic? Will there be any humor? Should there be any humor? And as this played out, intriguingly, I noted a potential problem with the humor of this production emerge in the events portrayed. In this end, this is a beautifully acted and realized production that should be seen.

Director Gary Griffin‘s choreographed initial images in this new production of Emily Mann‘s “Execution of Justice” become a kind of call to ritual and call to performance with drum (provided by percussionists Andy Jones and Bob Garret) and stylized movement. Griffin’s background in musical theatre is blissfully resonant in choices like these. We are compelled to listen, with sights and sounds that suggest ancient Greek theatre, with all characters initially on stage in mute assemblage, welcoming us, commanding us to learn and ultimately to judge what we are about to see.

The Milk and Moscone shootings are presented on the set’s nine video screens arrayed three by three, upstage, in the middle of the compact playing area dressed and lit by Brian Sidney Bembridge. We live through November 27, 1978 at San Francisco City Hall and the immediate aftermath through re-enacted news reports at the time of discovering the bodies, and the familiar footage of a stunned Supervisor Dianne Feinstein making the announcement. The video design by Logan Kibens is lovely, essential to this story telling and this particular staging of the events and the theatre of this production. The nine television screens are used in unison or as parts of a larger whole, projecting black and white stage setting images such as architecturally intriguing courtroom details and video of a solemn candlelight march interspersed, as needed, with the equivalent of vaudeville act introduction placards (e.g. “Act One: Murder”, “Recess”, “Act Two: Defense”), or the previously mentioned actual or re-enacted news footage reporting the events of the play. The purpose is clear; the artistry is strong.

The play focuses on the people who end up on the courtroom, the misguided judicial and jury decisions, and selected events subsequent to the trial of Dan White. In the staging of the court sequences (the prosecution and defense portions split neatly with the one intermission), the courtroom personnel, including defense attorney, prosecuting attorney, and all witnesses, face the audience. When the judge’s voice emerges, it is from the back of the auditorium. Despite the slightly awkward staging that challenges courtroom veracity (e.g. all the action does not face the jury in a court of law), we slowly realize that we, the audience, are the jury and are in fact instructed as a jury prior to the intermission break not to discuss the facts of the case. This conceit actually works in a tidy, predictable way.

The play illuminates the challenges of portraying relatively recent social and politically charged events in a theatrical setting. This piece can be compared to the more recent oral history/ recitative drama based on the experiences of detainees at Guantanamo (“Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom“) produced last season at Chicago’s Timeline Theatre. While the substance of “Guantanamo” is as stirring as anything generated by a playwright’s imagination, and it was a gripping piece of theatre as performed by the actors in the Timeline production, “Guantanamo” suffers from the almost exclusively sequential, recitative presentation of the words of individuals involved in observing, legally defending, and surviving incarceration at Guantanamo after September 11, 2001. Both “Guantanamo” and “Execution” deserve their audiences. But while one is social theatre as staged delivery of individual speeches, what Emily Mann has crafted is in fact more theatrical, selectively portrayed, and involves more than a few actual conversations. In addition, the world of courtroom dramas stand as peers and partners, while this production provides some new nuances (the “we the jury” element placing the audience in the action and the booming, “Judge as Zack” element in which the judge’s voice and never the judge himself appears and responds to the arguments and testimony provided, much like the director Zack auditioning hopefuls for most of “A Chorus Line“). So “Execution of Justice” is both a bit more theatrical and a bit more creative than some plays that immediately jump to mind in comparison.

Among the stories discussed and portrayed in “Execution” are the stories of the two slain men, the man who shot and killed them, the legal system’s challenges (charging, jury mechanics, and other issues), and the response by people on the street to these events. Perhaps too much is attempted in one bit of theatre? While we have some video of Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone, we don’t get to know them as individuals. We do get to know the effect they had on a city and a community through several intriguing characters, e.g. “Milk’s Friend” (Freddie Sulit) and community activist Gwen Craig (Ora Jones). And we do have a chance to revel in the predictably dramatic “courtroom as theatre” speeches by Prosecutor Tom Norman (the fabulous John Judd) and defense attorney Doug Schmidt (earnestly and sometimes cartoonishly played by Sean Fortunato), and the disturbing words of Dan White himself (Steve Key). This production is blessed with fabulous acting; the play itself attempts to demonstrate a pivotal event for a community, for a city, for a movement: the injustice of the trial and the responsibility of the people who participated in it.

This play as a play may have some challenges over time. For example, the presentation of baldly homophobic and bigoted language during jury selection, during public discourse as reported at the time of the trial, elicited chortles from the opening night crowd rather than the perhaps intended gasps or shudders. The challenge will always be to bring the audience into the world and time and place of the increasingly distant 1978 of the play. The opening night crowd chuckled repeatedly at the snidely humorous performance by Sean Fortunato as defense attorney. I wonder if this humor (seen as humor through the lens of history) might challenge the intended effect of the words and actions. These were not buffoons representing Dan White or articulating their support of his repressed and almost separatist/isolationist view but instruments of terror and injustice, in their own way.

After our recess, after the jury deliberations, the participants in the courtroom are a bit aghast, the community responds quietly and forcefully through marches, and we attempt to make sense of this. None of the participants “win” in this bit of history. We in our society “win” through the role this political event played in the evolution of GLBT rights. This is a play worth producing and tweaking as the times change.

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 20, 2007)

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