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THEATER REVIEW : 'Chicago': A Twisted Piece of History

March 25, 1994|JAN BRESLAUER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Y ippee!"

That (and more) is the testimony of the poet Allen Ginsberg at the 1969-70 trial of the so-called "Chicago Eight." It's also the proper response to the 15th anniversary production of Ron Sossi and Frank Condon's "The Chicago Conspiracy Trial" at the Odyssey.

Ably directed by Condon, this muscular docudrama is based on the transcripts of the trial of the anti-Vietnam War protesters who were charged with conspiring to incite a riot outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

First staged at the Odyssey in 1979 and since produced by HBO, "The Chicago Conspiracy Trial" isn't the only play ever based on this infamous trial, but it has deservedly enjoyed the most lasting reputation.

Most courtroom dramas, of course, are only as good as the proceedings they're based on. But you couldn't ask for more theatrical material than the government-engineered shenanigans that defense attorney William M. Kunstler, writing with Stewart E. Albert in 1979, called "one of the most bizarre spectacles in American legal history."

On the one side, you have a table full of colorful defendants, from the Yippee jokester Abbie Hoffman to the passionate Black Panther Bobby Seale, who contrast with the uptight government prosecutors. There are also the eccentric witnesses such as Ginsberg, and, at the center, the somewhat off-his-rocker Judge Julius Hoffman.

Aside from some environmental theater trimmings that take place outside the Odyssey before the show and during intermission, the play is set solely in the U.S. courthouse in Chicago. Sossi and Condon have shrunk down five months worth of proceedings and tinkered with the chronology a bit, relying on projected captions to provide the audience with dates and the occasional relevant quote. Still, it's a "just the facts, ma'am" approach but, because the facts are so wacko to begin with, that's all that's needed.

The 36-member ensemble--whose key players resemble their real-life counterparts to an impressive degree--negotiates the tight quarters with ease. The cast is headed by Allan Miller and Albie Selznick's magnetic and nuanced turns as the defense attorneys Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, respectively; Paul Provenza's perfect-pitch Abbie Hoffman, and George Murdock as the sputtering Judge Hoffman.

There is a bit of ingenuousness to "A Chicago Conspiracy Trial." Sossi and Condon seem to share the defendants' assessment of the government as "fascist," rather than merely reactionary, bumbling and brutish. Accordingly, we're not told at the end that all of the convictions were reversed on appeal, partly due to Judge Hoffman's behavior. But as an entertaining refresher (or first) course in a twisted bit of U.S. history, you can't beat it.

* "The Chicago Conspiracy Trial," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m., except April 10, 24, 2 p.m. Ends May 1. $17.50-$21.50. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

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