A military tribunal was convened at California Stage on Saturday for the purpose of bringing George W.Bush to trial. He was charged with war crimes, dereliction of duty, and treason. After testimony by witnesses and deliberation by juries on each charge, he was found guilty on all three counts and sentenced to the maximum time in prison.
As a reviewer, I make it a point never to reveal the endings of plays that I review. I don’t want to spoil it for people who will be coming to see the show. But I make exception for playwright Todd Blakesley’s “A Patriot Act: The Trial of GeorgeW.Bush” because the ending of the show is dependent on audience input. It may change each night. (In fact, I spoke with the director after the second performance, and learned the defendant had been acquitted on two counts and convicted only on dereliction of duty.)
“A Patriot Act” is an experience from the moment you approach the theater. (One hopes that there will be a way to speed up the entrance process, as at Sunday’s performances, a line stretched out the door and into the hot sun while people slowly filed in.) Each person must fill out a security clearance card, which they were informed must be worn at all times. The cards indicate whether the person was there to be a member of one of the three juries, a witness for either the prosecution or the defense, or merely an observer.
Once the cards were filled out, people were screened for weapons before being allowed to pass into the theater itself.
There was activity going on in the courtroom, with potential witnesses being interviewed by attorneys, jurors being assigned to individual juries, and attorneys discussing among themselves. On opening night, there was a longer line for the prosecution witnesses than for the defense.
The audience was informed that the defendant was being held in an undisclosed location, but was monitoring the actions on closed-circuit television and communicating with his attorneys via telephone.
The court is presided over by Magistrate Mark Heckman. Heckman, with Ray Tatar (who also acts as a special agent), is the co-director of the piece and he was very judicial in his supervision of the trial itself.
Bailiff Crag Chavez was stern, at times almost menacing, as he kept things orderly and called each witness to the stand.
Opening statements and instructions were a little rocky on opening night, but the cast quickly settled into the rhythm of the trial.
The prosecution team is headed by William A. Bergen, who is not only an actor...but also an Auburn-based attorney. Of all six of the attorneys (three of whom are attorneys in real life), Bergen was the most at ease and seemed the best able to think on his feet. He inspired confidence whenever he got up to speak.
Other prosecution attorneys were Mark Stone and Eva Kim. The defense team was headed by Sacramento attorney Jeff Kravitz, assisted by actor/attorney Michael Garabedian and Bergen’s real life daughter, Athena Bergen, a U.C. Davis graduate
Four of the witnesses (Devin Ritchie, Ellen Vincent, Franny Phillips and Greg Koski) are scripted, and are called randomly, along with the audience volunteers. (I won’t review their performances, to keep the audience guessing as to who is who, but all gave believable performances.) On opening night there was an interesting assortment of witnesses, each of whom was passionate in his or her statements. Each spoke to how the current administration had negatively or positively affected his or her life. Testimony from audience volunteers provided the heart of this play, giving intensity and depth of feeling about the current administration. It lent an air of authenticity to the proceedings.
When all witnesses had been heard, the jury retired to their respective chambers to deliberate and return with a verdict. It is clear, from the notes some of the jurors took during the trial, that they took their task very seriously. The result was clear to no one until the jurors return from deliberation.
While many may feel that this play is set up to point fingers at the President, in fact the audience is a mix of supporters and detractors, and both sides had an opportunity to be heard. It is an example of the kind of democracy and free speech that we are attempting to spread around the world.
Todd Blakesley and California Stage are to be commended for allowing Sacramento area audiences the opportunity to participate in this thought-provoking work which will surely send many audience members home with lots of points to ponder as we head into “election season.” As for how the trial turns out the night you attend, just remember: YOU are the decider.