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Review: Theatre Western’s Twelve Angry Men

12-men

by Meghan O’Hara

Twelve Angry Men – Theatre Western

Theatre Western’s choice of “Twelve Angry Men” for their annual fall production could not have been more timely—one week after the 2016 American Presidential election, the play stages the human drama of democracy.

Adapted from Reginald Rose’s film by Sherman L. Sergel, “Twelve Angry Men” brings us inside the jury room for a dramatic criminal case: a boy is charged with
killing his father, and twelve individuals have been designated to decide his fate.

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Theatre Western’s decision to make this production gender-blind and race-blind enhances the work’s contemporary relevance—though the costumes, hair, and atmosphere place us firmly in the 1950s (for example, the actors smoke herbal cigarettes abundantly throughout the production), the diverse casting suggests that this conflict could just as easily take place in 2016.

This effect is further heightened by co-directors Jack Phoenix and Danny Avila’s decision to stage the play “in the round”: the audience is seated in rows on all four sides of the stage, surrounding a table with twelve chairs which is placed at the centre. While this set-up can, at times, produce some issues with sightlines (after all, the play involves a group of people sitting around a table), the actors do their best to minimize this limitation by positioning themselves strategically, and getting up to move around the room where necessary and appropriate.

Moreover, the overall effect of this set-up is so worthwhile that it makes up for any of its shortcomings—seated in the round, Phoenix and Avila force us to confront our fellow spectators, and much like the jury members, we must wonder what convictions, prejudices, or even traumas, may lie beneath the faces they present to the world.

While the play’s jurors first present as stereotypes—the angry one, the rich one, the nervous one, and so on—as the play continues, each character’s more complex selves are slowly revealed, a move which is skillfully executed by the entirety of this production’s cast.

The play is very much an ensemble piece, and a demanding one at that; as ever, Theatre Western’s actors rise to the occasion, working in concert to engage their audience’s interest, absorbing us into the world they’ve created.

The play has numerous stand-out performances: Kyle Stark’s Juror #11, a European WW2 refugee, draws laughs with his precision and dead-pan delivery.

Alex Gaistman is deft and savvy as Juror #8, the play’s first dissenter.

Kevin Heslop’s performance as Juror #9 is thoughtful and compassionate.

In particular, I was impressed by Alexandra Floras-Matic’s depiction of the appallingly racist Juror #10—her whole body seems to seethe with silent rage, until her anger finally breaks free in a powerful (and disturbing) monologue which sees most of the table stand up and turn their backs on her.

In addition, Zerina Francis must be commended for her excellent performance as the measured and logical Juror #4; commanding attention both from the audience and her fellow jury members, she’s a clear authority here.

In his portrayal of Juror #3—the almost exclusively angry jury member—Jack Copland gives a truly powerful performance. Even before his emotional (and for me, chills-inducing) monologue, which concludes the jury’s deliberations, it is evident that his character’s anger is anything but simplistic rage.

The complexity and depth of character that Copland brings to this role is, in short, seriously impressive. Indeed, the entire cast is to be commended for their prowess—it is only with their collective talent that the performance could have been as successful as it was.

It’s an incredibly challenging task to hold an audience’s attention on a single scene for 90 minutes. However, Theatre Western’s production achieves this not only through its cast’s accomplished performances, but also through care and skill in production design.

Both set and costumes are monochromatic—mostly shades of black and white—the effect of which, in combination with an atmospherically stark lighting design, is a visual uniformity which serves to hold our attention on the jury table.

Nancy Xu, Nadya Kostenko, Janet Hong, Abby Tung, Amanda Belmonte, and Alyssa Molko should be congratulated for producing such a cohesive and professional-quality costume, hair/makeup, and set design.

All told, this was a fantastic and powerful production, made even more impactful when viewed in the wake of the American Presidential election.

At the beginning of the play, Juror #8 states that her dissent is because she “want[s] to talk for awhile.” This moment struck me as especially poignant from a contemporary context. At its heart, this play is about transcending clear binaries of right and wrong, truth and fiction, or black and white, progressively blurring the lines between these categories as the group talks to one another.

“Twelve Angry Men” demonstrates that politics—if we consider that matters of justice are always, on some level, political—are inherently personal.

This is perhaps embodied best by Juror #5—played as innocent but unexpectedly street-smart in this production by Trisha Kershaw—who reluctantly identifies herself as having “lived in a slum for all [her] life,” stating that maybe it “still smells on [her],” after Juror #4 and #10 identify the accused’s impoverished upbringing as a justification for their “guilty” votes. This was powerfully uncomfortable moment; of course, Juror #4 immediately suggests that there’s “nothing personal” about their prejudiced opinions, but for those targeted by such perspectives, it can never be anything other than personal.

Thus, for me, this production of “Twelve Angry Men” emphasizes the need to confront the personal complexities inherent in the political. The performance seems to suggest that if democracy is to function in the face of radically divisive politics, we must talk to one another, and perhaps more importantly, we must also listen.

Whether or not the play’s championing of the transformative potential of discussion is too optimistic for our contemporary circumstances will perhaps remain to be seen—it is nonetheless an important viewpoint which Theatre Western does well to remind us of in this timely production.

Details Details:

Twelve Angry Men
Adapted by Sherman L. Sergel; Based on the film by Reginald Rose
The West Lounge, University Community Centre, Western University
Running until Saturday November 19 2016
Show at 8pm

Tickets at the door, or online at: https://uwo12angrymen.eventbrite.ca/

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Meghan O’Hara is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University, where she researches contemporary British theatre, and the experience of live performance. She is also managing editor of Word Hoard, an interdisciplinary arts journal.

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