Review: "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial"

Skip Maloney

There were, at the outset, some environmental concerns. Rain seemed likely, and given the weather pattern that Wilmington, NC had been experiencing over the week or so prior to Saturday, July 8, a torrential downpour was well within the realm of possibility. This was on the minds of those of us who climbed the wooden ramps to the open-air fantail of the USS North Carolina, permanently berthed on the Cape Fear River and functioning as a WWII monument. It is open for daily tours, and playing host, so it has been said, to a few ghosts. The weather was on the minds of the cast and crew of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, as well. With a curtain scheduled for 8 p.m., and the skies growing grayer than the gunmetal of the ship itself, some were convinced that everybody would be ducking for cover before it was over. Possibly before it even started.

There were alternatives ready to employ, though the prospect of moving cast, crew, audience, and a fair amount of light and sound equipment to an interior space (in the rain, possibly) was almost too daunting to contemplate. Of course, the ‘theater’ itself was impervious to the threat of bad weather. Two-and-a-half football fields in length and 32 yards wide, the USS North Carolina had seen and survived a lot worse weather than anything the North Carolinian coast could throw at it, berthed in a dock. She was commissioned in April 1941, and was considered to be “the world’s greatest sea weapon.” She performed in the Pacific during WWII and earned 15 battle stars, each with its own sea story. Decommissioned in 1947, and almost scrapped, she was saved by a statewide, eventually successful Save Our Ship (SOS) campaign by the citizens of North Carolina. She arrived in her berth on the Cape Fear River in October of 1961 and was officially dedicated, six months later, as a State memorial to its WWII veterans, and the 11,000 North Carolinians who had died during the war.

Now, some 56 years later, the fantail portion of the ship - a wide, open space on the aft deck - had been transformed into a stage; a set of standard stage platforms, a couple of greys, backdrop flats, flanking the only entrance. A center-stage chair, a stage right prosecutor’s table, a stage left defense table, and a slightly-raised, wide judge’s podium behind the prosecution’s table. There were two light poles, one on each downstage side of the stage platforms, the speakers for a sound system, and a stage manager’s control console on a table, off-stage left. The audience sat in wooden folding chairs. Behind us, pointing at an angle just over our heads toward the city of Wilmington, were the 16” barrels of three, 61-ft long, .45 caliber Mark 6 guns that reminded everybody that real ships with real men shooting real guns, like the fictional Caine, did fight in far-flung corners of the globe to keep our parents’ and in a lot of cases, our grandparents’ generation safe.

This was the second production that Wilmington, NC’s Thalian Association had decided to mount on the fantail of the USS North Carolina. The first was a production of Mister Roberts, originally a novel (1946; by Thomas Heggen), turned into a play (1948; by Heggen and Joshua Logan), and then, realized in a film (1955; written by Frank S. Nugent and Joshua Logan, directed by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy), starring Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell and Jack Lemmon. Its Thalian Association production, 62 years later, premiered around the 4th of July, with its run including a July 4th performance with fireworks. The tradition had been established.

A year later, for its second on-board-the-USS-North-Carolina production, the Thalian Association chose The Caine Mutiny Court Martial with an almost identical history. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, called just The Caine Mutiny (1951, by Herman Wouk), became the play, called The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1953, adapted by the author), and then, the film The Caine Mutiny (1954; screenplay by Stanley Roberts, directed by Edward Dmytryk), starring Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson and Fred MacMurray. In 1988, a made-for-TV version, with Wouk as the screenwriter, was directed by Robert Altman and starred Eric Bogosian, Brad Davis and Jeff Daniels.

The Thalian Association didn’t just pick a couple of plays to throw onto a boat. They picked plays that reverberated with the history of the vessel upon which they were mounting their production.

Having some history in theater, I tend to put ‘outdoors’ in the same legendary spot occupied by ‘dogs’ and, to a lesser extent for me, ‘children,’ as things one would prefer to avoid in theatrical productions when possible. Within minutes of my arrival on the ship, with rain looming on the horizon, I remembered why. Within minutes of the first words spoken on this make-shift stage, however, I considered taking ‘outdoors’ off the list, because everything about the setting added weight and consequence to what was happening on the stage.

First of all, it didn’t rain. But at the end of a long, hot, moisture-laden day, the air was cooler. A light breeze blew up off the Cape Fear River, almost directly into our faces, as the story unfolded.

Absent the scenes, present in the novel and film, of the actual events leading up to the court-martial, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial had to rely on words, and words alone, to effect the drama at the story’s core. There are legendary scenes in the novel and film; the dropping of a yellow-dye canister into the ocean, and a story behind a quart of strawberries, for example, which become something of a centerpiece in the arguments of the trial. It loses a little bit of its power when the actors can’t ‘show’ and have to ‘tell’ you about it.

What they tell you in ‘court’ is the tale of a Navy Ship captain, Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg by name, who, through his actions, led his second-in-command, Executive Officer Stephen Maryk, to believe that he was unstable, and in the midst of a typhoon, relieved his superior officer of his command of The Caine. Once back on land, Maryk is brought before a ‘courts-martial’ to answer serious charges of mutiny.

The trial pits Queeg and Maryk against each other, as they describe highly different interpretations of the same events. You hear Maryk (and others) tell the stories of the yellow-dye canister and strawberries in a way that seems to spotlight Queeg’s instability. But when Queeg takes the stand, you hear a decorated Naval officer explain his attempts to maintain discipline and order on a ship that prior to his assumption of command had become lax in its duties.

Where is the justice in the conflicting stories told about events aboard the USS Caine? A reader and/or viewer’s loyalties are tipped in favor of the young Executive Office Stephen Maryk, because through varied accounts, the character of Lt. Commander Queeg comes across as more than just a little off-base, so to speak. Figuratively tearing the ship apart in search of a simple quart of strawberries or going ballistic because an on-board movie was started before his arrival has a way of making you believe that under the circumstances of the typhoon, Maryk was justified in relieving what is perceived to be a highly volatile and unstable commander.

The Thalian Association production hit all the right notes in the portrayal of this conflict, particularly regarding the demeanor and behavior of its central characters. As wordy as the play is, the performances of those central characters were, for the most part, letter perfect. The actualization of real (conflicted) characters on the stage lent credence to the sometimes overwhelming volume of things they had to say; back and forth throughout the conduct of the trial.

Beneath the surface conflict outlining the battle for guilt or innocence lays an underlying issue that centers on the Executive Officer Stephen Maryk’s defense attorney, Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, played in this production by Stuart Pike. At first, his attitude, borne of an initial reluctance to take the case at all, seems puzzling. He refuses to cross-examine certain witnesses and with those he does choose to cross-examine, he appears reluctant to press them on what Maryk, sitting at the defense table, believes to be important information. Pike’s portrayal of Greenwald highlights a central conflict which doesn’t reveal itself until the very end of the play. Pike creates a tension in the character (not to mention) the courtroom, which creates a degree of tension in the audience. Pike evokes a casual, though at first, puzzling air to the character of Greenwald, which is easy to like, while maintaining a sense of unpredictable distance.

As Lieutenant Commander Queeg, Mark Deese bore the weight of the entire conflict on his shoulders, as it played out in the courtroom and in the hearts and minds of those of us who watched (we were often addressed directly, as if in a spectator gallery). Queeg is as guilty as hell of pretty much everything Maryk accuses him of doing, but as a character, Queeg has to stay within himself to portray a Naval officer who, under the circumstances, acted in the best naval tradition as commander of the USS Caine. Deese does this admirably, demonstrating just enough bombast to make Queeg seem a little ‘off,’ while at the same time (which is tricky) eliciting individual points that put him in the ‘right’ when it came to commanding the ship. There is a famous scene (in the movie) in which, during testimony, Bogart (as Queeg) extracts two small metal balls from his uniform and begins to knead them in the palm of one hand. In the film, the friction of the balls makes a sound that one can actually hear. On the fantail of the USS North Carolina, this could not be heard. In fact, they could hardly be seen, which had a way of undercutting this physical piece of ‘business,’ so central to the visual demonstration of Queeg’s eventual collapse in front of everyone. Not Deese’s fault, actually, although an argument could be made that an audience’s awareness of those metal balls and the significant role they played in the downfall of Queeg could have been highlighted a little better.

As Lieutenant Thomas Keefer, whose actual role in the alleged mutiny and in the courtroom, is obscured for quite some, Charles Calhoun did an equally masterful job at appearing to answer questions, while disguising aspects of his testimony that will prove before it’s over that he had a greater hand in the proceedings, both on and off the ship, than is immediately apparent.

Each of the remaining characters blended well into their individual roles as witnesses at the trial, offering different perspectives of the events in question. There was humor, indignation, loyalty and a host of other appropriate attributes on display, offering us, as viewers, a colorful tapestry of real people with whom, at appropriate moments, we were all either in support of or opposed to, dependent on which side of the guilt or innocence line the portrayals demonstrated.

  (l to r) Stuart Pike (as Lt. Barney Greenwald), Nathan Mattheis (as Lt. Maryk) and Mark Deese (as Lt. Commander Queeg).(James Bowling)

 (l to r) Stuart Pike (as Lt. Barney Greenwald), Nathan Mattheis (as Lt. Maryk) and Mark Deese (as Lt. Commander Queeg).(James Bowling)

In some ways, the eight or so lighting instruments that were used to illuminate the action were sufficient to the task, although areas of the stage were dimly lit (set and sound design by a Wilmington ‘treasure,’ Lance Howell). Even in areas of relative darkness though (the defense table was dim), there was sufficient light to see the performers. Being at or slightly above the performers’ heads, the lighting instruments had a way of creating a somewhat unique perspective at varied moments. Pike, for example, while questioning a witness on the central chair, would step right up next to one of the light poles, and position himself within inches of the lighting instrument in such a way that half of his face was brightly lit, while the other half was in deep shadow. It was a repeated stage ‘picture’ that was surprisingly effective. Pike explained later that the ‘picture’ wasn’t the intent. He was merely making sure that the central focus of the light stayed firmly on the witness in the central chair.

Each actor was mic-ed, and the system that broadcast their words worked perfectly; no sound gaps or muffled conversations (sound design by Katie Deese). Kudos to director Jordan Wolfe for a well-staged and fluent production of the play. Overall, technically, the production was well-designed and executed, in spite of its unpredictable environment. Theatrically, it was as close to letter-perfect as you could wish. The ‘reveal’ of the play’s final scene, a post-trial party held by the victors (Maryk and his fellow officers) is devastating. Pike’s command of his ‘drunken’ performance at this party is outstanding, with just the right blend of staggering incapacity, combined with an iron sense of control. In a way, the defense attorney’s speech to the gathered celebrants at the ‘party’ is more than just a come-uppance for the characters, it’s a wake-up call for all of us who’ve watched the collapse of Queeg and applauded the result. It tempers a celebration with a hint of caution, suggesting that we more or less be careful what we wish for.

Now that the tradition is firmly established, it’s time to look forward to next year’s theatrical event aboard the USS North Carolina. Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men, perhaps? Court Martial at Fort Devens by Jeffrey Sweet? The Ghosts May Laugh by Stuart Lee (played out in a trench during WWI, in which officers play out a series of ghost stories, which would fit right in with the ghost stories that surround the USS North Carolina)? Not sure that they want to start thinking about musicals on that stage or in that environment (picture the orchestra, scrambling to get out of any rain that fell), otherwise South Pacific would be appropriate.

Performances of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial will continue on board the USS North Carolina on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings through July 15.