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BWW Reviews: A Split Decision for Soulpepper's TWELVE ANGRY MEN


The celebrated 1957 film 12 Angry Men is a drama that began its life on television as part of a CBS series, Studio One, where it premiered in 1954.

The work, penned by ex-serviceman Reginald Rose and inspired by his direct experience as a juror, went on to win an Emmy, and in its later form, an Academy Award nomination. It tells the story of twelve jurors who debate the fate of a sixteen year-old Latino boy on trial for murdering his father. The work starts out with one Not-Guilty vote, and explores the various prejudices of each juror (none of whom are given names) while simutaneously examining the nature of justice on both epic and intimate levels. The original film featured a superlative cast that included Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, and Jack Klugman. Rose's work has enjoyed many updates, revisions, and re-imaginings since its premiere in the late 1950s, including a radio drama in 2005 (featuring Dan Castellaneta, better known as the voice of Homer Simpson), an all-female version (Twelve Angry Women, by Sherman L. Sergel, based directly on Rose's work), and German, Indian, and Russian adaptations. The work returned to its television roots in 1997 with an all-star cast featuring James Gandolfini, Jack Lemmon, Hume Cronyn, and Tony Danza, and included contemporary updates touching more directly on race and culture. It most recently enjoyed a lengthy, successful stage run (with Tom Conti) in London's West End.

Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto is currently presenting Twelve Angry Men the play, on now at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts through July 19th. While there are questionable directorial and design choices, the strong acting and ensemble work underline Rose's themes of acceptance, humanity, and respect for rights. Key words and phrases are peppered throughout the script of Twelve Angry Men that lend it a particular resonance to contemporary audiences: "constitution," "rights," "jobs," "those people," and "kids today; scan any news outlet (or Twitter) and you'll find a plentiful crop of every single one. In a time when rights are compromised, interpretations of the US Constitution are individualized, and various groups (particularly racial and class-based) grow increasingly polarized, Rose's work feels familiar. And yet, by placing Twelve Angry Men so firmly in a 1950s setting, as director Alan Dilworth has done, we lose the contemporary power and relevance these words and concepts have in our own lives, and how they color our own prejudices and perceptions.

While the program notes the timely connection of the play with the recent passing of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, there is little in this production that might lend itself to 2014 sensibilities. Hokey TV-style detective music bookending the action, and a booming, vintage-sounding offstage voice (of the Judge) outlining the case details at the play's opening, serve only to remove the audience further from the play's themes. Yannik Larivee's costume design favors high-waisted pants, hats, and wide ties, and the distinct vocal patterns of 1950s New York are liberally employed throughout the piece. It's a curious choice, to so firmly place this piece in the time in which it was written, when its themes are timeless and as yet vital as ever. For all the play's scant references to its own era (a salary reveal, and one mention of Khrushchev), there's little in the script that firmly ties Twelve Angry Men to its time, which might explain why the work has been so widely adapted since its creation sixty years ago. What does Soulpepper's 1950s version bring an audience in 2014 that the 1957 movie doesn't? Predictably little, though thanks to the strength of its performances, we do get some great onstage moments.

Twelve Angry Men is a great vehicle for male performance and ensemble work, and Dilworth's talented cast rise to the occasion. Cyrus Lane inhabits his breezy, gum-chewing, sports-fan juror with snappy aplomb, while Tony DeSantis, as the Jury Foreman, brings a compelling everyman vibe to his role as the unwitting beta-turned-alpha of the group. Soulpepper Founding Members Joseph Ziegler and William Webster deliver seething, eminently watchable performances, with the latter using his musical voice to rhythmic, sometimes brutal effect. Ziegler is explosive as the intransigent Juror 3, bringing to mind all the warped, jagged anger of his Willie Loman (from Soulpepper's 2010 production of Death of a Salesman) together with a more tender, vulnerable vision of betrayed fatherhood. Robert Nasmith, as Juror 9, the group's elder statesman, gives a compassionate performance with well-placed pauses and knowing body language, painting a portrait of a man who too well knows his position as a senior in a younger man's world. Stuart Hughes, as Juror 8, gives a tightly controlled portrait of a man trying to do the right thing; in his body language and facial expressions, he clearly recalls his forerunner, Henry Fonda, though his silent scene with Ziegler's Juror 3, at the play's end, is shot through with a tender humanity.

It's frustrating to note, then, how the production's strange design work distracts one's attention from the greatness of these performances in the work's second half, when a rainstorm is physicalized within the tight confines of the Michael Young Theatre. The theater has been smartly arranged so that the audience sits on either side of the narrow stage, on which a long table, chairs, a ceiling fan, a clock, a sink, and a coat rack make up the suitably anodyne jurors' room. This is, in essence, a good design that allows us to not only witness the cast in close quarters, but allows the audience to observe one another. We are in conversation and debate about the issues being presented; we are the judge, the jurors, even the convicted. This good idea comes undone, however, with the inclusion of the rain in the second half, when we see (and hear, and in some cases, feel) water streaming down either side of the long narrow stage. Why this is necessary is anyone's guess; sound designer Richard Feren offers a loud, booming thunder effect, while Kimberly Purtell's lighting design flickers not only onstage lights but house ones as well. We understand the storm is meant to heighten and underline the discord of the jurors, but surely the audience doesn't need to be spoonfeed?

It's a curious bit of literalizing from a company whose past work relies more on creative theatrical elements and its audiences' imaginations to fill in details. The watery addition here not only made patrons in the first rows uncomfortable (some of them spent the entirety of the second half in a twisted, trying-to-avoid-the-wet contortion), but ultimately serves no dramatic purpose; its use is distracting, pointless, and every bit as trite and unimaginative as the use of the intro/outro music, and, it could be argued, the staid 1950s setting itself.

Still, it's the powerhouse performances one notices and remembers about this production. With every single performance within Twelve Angry Men, you will find threads of genuine beauty and wonder. Every single actor here is remarkable, and genuienly moving. So by all means, come for the awesome acting; stay for the heartfelt humanity. Just try not to think of Perry Mason as the lights go down and then come up again. And don't sit in the front row.

Photo credits: Top photo, Derek Boyes, Robert Nasmith, Joseph Ziegler, Tim Campbell, Stuart Hughes & Byron Abalos. Middle photo, William Webster, Joseph Ziegler, Tim Campbell, Stuart Hughes & Robert Nasmith. Bottom photo, Byron Abalos, Joseph Ziegler, Michael Simpson, Stuart Hughes, Jordan Pettle & Tony DeSantis. All photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.

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From This Author Catherine Kustanczy

Catherine an arts writer specializing in reviews and longform profile features. She has worked in Dublin, London, Toronto, and New York City, in a variety (read more...)