art as justice

Although the real hunt continues, ‘The Trial of Osama bin Laden’ premieres

A play premiering this month at Old Arizona goes far beyond the typical current-events drama by incorporating the personal experiences of its writers and actors.

Veteran Hollywood screenwriter Mark Gerzon and Peter Goldmark collaborated on &#8220The Trial of Osama bin Laden.” The play fictionally links bin Laden to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, but it achieves depth and richness by incorporating life experiences of its principles: Gerzon worked as a conflict mediator with the U.S. government, and Goldmark is past-president of the New York Port Authority, the body that governed the World Trade Center. Some actors, also, are playing roles they held in real life.

Through this melding of fact and fiction and the personal and the universal, Gerzon and Goldmark hope to help Americans better understand individual responses to global events to arrive at a more sensible U.S. policy in the &#8220war on terror.”

&#8220I think America is a little lost right now, lost about what's going on in the world,” Goldmark said. &#8220This is an invitation to start thinking really seriously so we can act intelligently and can demand sound policies from leaders who're setting out on the most fateful voyage to navigate the age of terrorism.”

Obviously, &#8220The Trial of Osama bin Laden,” set in New York, is a work of fiction - but it is interwoven with current events, such as press reports regarding the recent release of a bin Laden audio tape and the ongoing Saddam Hussein trial and that of al-Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. The play also more recently adapted to include riots that broke out weeks ago following publication in a Dutch newspaper of a cartoon featuring the Prophet Mohammad. Footage from these and other events are projected above the players.

&#8220One of the intriguing things to me is the interface between artists and the world,” said director John Clarke Donahue. &#8220It's fascinating to work on a piece that's so much connected to the events that are unfolding even daily and seem to illuminate and inform everything that we're doing.”

Added Gerzon: &#8220This is one of those human tragedies where the antagonist and the drama never meet each other; they never come face to face. Bin Laden will never meet the people he hurt. We felt some need to make it happen, and thought we could make it happen onstage.”

Setting the stage

Friends Gerzon and Goldmark met for lunch in 2002 and discovered they both were working on projects involving trials. They melded their ideas and revised them back-and-forth via e-mail and phone from their respective Colorado and New York homes.

Two years into development, the working script was passed from friend to friend, eventually landing in the hands of Charles Neerland, a Minneapolis-based political consultant who was in New York at the time. He immediately agreed to produce the play here. To finalize the script, Neerland and Goldmark convened a workshop at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul and a staged reading at Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Downtown's North Loop.

In a strange twist, not long after, Goldmark was called as lead witness in the trial against the New York Port Authority for negligence surrounding the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. As president of the Port Authority from 1978 to 1985, Goldmark organized a task force studying the vulnerabilities of the two towers and other U.S. sites. Specifically, he had warned of the potential for truck-bombs to be used there. In late February 1993, a rented truck carrying 1,500 pounds of explosives was detonated in the underground garage of the Trade Center's north tower. Six people were killed and more than 1,000 were injured.

&#8220It was very ironic,” Goldmark said. &#8220We'd completed the play first and then I was called for this trial that I'd written about. It was a different attack and different year but the same idea. This is really a twisting theme in my life.”

Neerland formed a nonprofit production company, Stagewright Unlimited, and secured funding from a cross-section of society. Major contributors included film actor Alan Alda; former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker; Neerland's niece Jeannette Blewett Berg and her husband, Charles Berg; prominent businessman Wheelock Whitney; Patterson Cos. owners Peter and Pat Frechette; and Rockefeller Republicans in Minnesota activists Doug and Martha Head. Local philanthropists Mary Vaughan, Bob and Judy Murphy, and Gary Fink also were major contributors.

About 25 local actors, 18 of whom are paid professionals, are involved in the project. Some play characters connected to their personal lives. Former Anoka County Judge Franklin Knoll, for instance, is perched 12 feet above the stage in his role as judge.

The play, said Neerland, &#8220goes right at the issue of how does the U.S. learn from its experience. Revenge is insufficient. It doesn't forgive, explain or mollify attitudes toward Osama bin Laden. He's presented as a wacko, but you can see his rationale. If you can see it, you can deal with it.”