Point of View - Priti Bakalkar reviews 'The Caine Mutiny Court Martial'

The Caine Mutiny Court Martial

Watching Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial” presented by Motley on the eve of verdict of Ajmal Kasab was quite an experience. Quite an insight on the psyche of a lawyer forced to defend someone who he believes to be guilty!

As we entered the NCPA Experimental auditorium we were taken by surprise and shock to see two sentries standing guard over us. Quite an unnerving experience, I must say! Well, after the sentries warning us against use of mobile phones during the performance the Court Martial begun.

The play is about the trial for mutinous act of Steve Maryk (Shashankk Khetain) in relieving Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg (Ankur Vikal) of duty, as captain of the U.S.S. Caine, during a typhoon on December 18, 1944 on the ground of mental illness and therefore inability to be in command of the vessel. None of the officers of Navy are ready to represent Maryk as everyone believes that Maryk was wrong in his act and will be no doubt punished for the crime of mutiny. In such circumstances Lt. Barney Greenwald (Kenny Desai) unwillingly accepts case of Maryk. However, on more than one occasion he makes it clear to Maryk that he would rather be prosecuting him than defending him.

Maryk is hopeful that testimony Willis Keith (Gaurav Ghatanekar) and especially of Tom Keefer (Parimal Aloke) will support his actions on the day of December 18, 1944. Keefer who is a writer in his civil life boasts about his study of human nature as a writer. He confirms to Maryk that he supported Maryk’s action and believes that Maryk was correct in relieving Queeg who showed signs of mental illness (paranoia) on that fateful day. Greenwald immediately takes disliking for Keefer and warns Maryk against Keefer.

As the Court Martial proceeds the prosecution lawyer Lt. Challee (Aseem Hattangadi) examines various witnesses including Queeg and Keefer. Greenwald refuses to cross examine Keefer though he gave damaging testimony for Maryk’s case. Greenwalds’ plain refusal to cross examine Keefer annoys Maryk and puzzles the panel of Judges. Maryk is asked by the judges if he wishes to continue with Greenwald defending him or he would rather have him changed. While these Maryk is discussing with Greenwald, the Judges are having a word with Challee when Challee briefs the panel on Greenwald. The two scenes go parallel to each other. This could have highlighted the tension between a client who is convinced that his lawyer is not presenting his case to the best of his interest and the eccentricities of the lawyer. But Maryk just accepts to continue with Greenwald.

Keefer though turned out to be a turncoat, Keith, also a friend of Maryk's, testifies as to the events leading to the mutiny. During cross-examination, Greenwald gets Keith to tell numerous stories of Queeg's ineptness, vanity, dishonesty, pettiness and seeming cowardice; indeed, one such incident led the Caine's officers to give Queeg the nickname "Old Yellowstain."

After Keith’s testimony, signalman Junius Urban (Rahil Gilani) is called by the prosecution. A 20 odd year old Urban’s testimony is quite comic. But I felt it was untimed as it was just about when the drama was picking up and tension was building up. It was kind of a distraction.

Urban’s testimony is followed by the testimony of Captain Randolph Southard, an experienced naval officer called as an expert on destroyer ship-handling. He testifies that under the weather on the night of the mutiny, Queeg took all the proper measures, and did exactly what a commanding officer should have done and therefore in his view, Maryk's actions were completely hasty and unjustified. However, under cross examination from Greenwald, Southard concedes that he had never faced a similar situation in his career and the situation on the night of 18th December was a rare, extreme circumstances and under such circumstances sailing directly into the storm would be the only way to avoid sinking. That is the first victory for Greenwald in this case and you start to see a spider weaving a web for its prey.

Two psychiatrists who have examined Queeg, Dr. Forrest Lundeen (Faisal Rasheed) and Dr. Allen Bird, testify that though Queeg is not an ideal officer because he can be arrogant, overly defensive, nervous, and a bit of a bully, he is not mentally ill. However, Greenwald in his cross examination very craftily gets them to admit (Dr. Lundeen in particular) that some of Queeg's traits come close to the textbook definition of paranoia. Lundeen and Bird’s comical mannerism brings quite a laughter as the play is getting tense minute by minute. With Bird’s testimony the prosecution closes its case. The first act closes with an argument between Maryk and Greenwald as Maryk expresses his dissatisfaction about the way trial is being conducted by Greenwald.

In the second act, Greenwald presents his two witnesses, being Maryk himself and Queeg. Maryk explains in great detail what a petty, vindictive, isolated and paranoid commander Queeg was. In particular, Maryk dwells on "The Strawberry Incident," which convinced much of the crew that Queeg was insane. Challee in his cross examination tries to demolish the credentials of Maryk to prove that Maryk was in no way qualified to judge mental health of Quigg on account of his average intelligence and poor knowledge and understanding of psychology.

Greenwald calls Queeg as second witness for defence and the real drama begins. The audience feels disturbed to watch Queeg slowly getting trapped in his own testimony. As he realises he is trapped, an enraged Queeg rants that he was surrounded by disloyal officers, and at the end of his testimony looks exactly like the panicky paranoid that Maryk had described. Everyone is in a state of shock at his behaviour. When the defense rests, everyone else present knows that Maryk will be acquitted. A happy Maryk invites Greenwald to a celebration party that Tom Keefer is hosting later that evening to celebrate success of finding publisher for his book on war “Multitudes, Multitudes,"

At the party a drunk Greenwald rebukes Keefer who he believes to be the master mind behind the mutiny. He discloses the events that were not disclosed at the time of trial. Greenwald deeply regrets what he did to Queeg at the stand. He tells Maryk that though Maryk was guilty but he had to defend Maryk because he knew that a wrong man was at trial. As you learn the real turn of events you realise who the real victim is. Greenwald rebukes Keefer and throws Champaign on Keefer’s face and tells him to wipe his face all his life. On that heavy note the play ends.

The play did not quite pick up well till testimony of Captain Southard. But from then in spite of the comical bearing of the two psychiatrists the plays starts picking up and holds audience till the end. I wonder why psychiatrists always have to be shown little whimsical when they are supposed to be treating minds of others. Nevertheless, Faisal Rasheed as Lundeen was too funny. So was Rahil Gilani as the Sentry and Signalman Urban. He looked and behaved liked a 20 year old ignorant signalman. I somehow felt, Aseem Hattangadi as Challee could have done much better job. He just didn’t look or behave superior to whimsical Greenwald. Shashankk Kheitan, Guarav Ghatanekar as Maryk and Keith did their jobs. Parimal Aloke looked and behaved the slimy Keefer. Kenny Desai did a great job as Greenwald. Being a lawyer by profession I know exactly how it feels to defend a client when you know he is guilty. You need to be really indifferent & clinical and he was quite successful in portraying that indifference. But the show stealer was Ankur Vikal as Queeg. In the first act he did not really impress me. But in the second act he portrayed such wide range of emotions and nowhere he got melodramatic or over the board. He made each of us hate him with his arrogance but at the end of the play everyone felt sorry for him.

No doubt it was a wonderful performance but a few things like uniforms of the officers and their etiquettes needs to be worked on a bit. On a number of occasions the actors were invading on each other’s space. And then the real “SNAFU” moment by Shashankk Kheitan was during narration of the most crucial Strawberry incident. He almost blanked out. It took almost three attempts for him to get back on track! Scary!!

In spite of all the glitches the performance on the whole was good. I can very well say I quite enjoyed it and would recommend it to all those who like a Court room drama.