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Angry but riveting
Watching 12 Angry Men is an entirely unique theater experience. It is not meant to play out like traditional theater, but rather as a realistic peek behind closed jury doors. The audience sits on two sides of an open stage and watches events transpire from a number of vantage points, enveloped in the borderline claustrophobic atmosphere as tensions run higher and higher. There is no normal plot progression to speak of, and the costumes and sets play relatively minor roles. The characters are nameless throughout the entirety of the play and their personal backgrounds are barely delved into. The centerpiece of the play is the debate between twelve jurors over the possible guilt or innocence of one man: a powerful and realistic unraveling of assumptions and prejudices.
12 Angry Men begins with the inflectionless voice of a judge ending a trial and asking the jury to find a verdict for murder in the first degree. The audience knows nothing else about the case or the jurors, except that if the defendant is found guilty, he will be sent to the electric chair. This ignorance makes viewers reexamine their own opinions along with the jurors, as facts dissolve into an intricate web of possibilities.
Entirely centered on the concept of reasonable doubt, 12 Angry Men is a play that demands a lot from its actors. They have to make the arguments, objections, and extended monologues interesting and compelling or else the play falls flat. Fortunately, a few standout performances prevent the play from being too dry or stilted.
Juror #8 (Michael Mitchell, COL `10) is the only juror who has some doubt at the beginning of the play, and is faced with the difficult task of not only convincing the other jurors, but also of saying “I don’t know” a good number of times and maintaining believability without becoming grating. Mitchell retains his composure elegantly through most of the play, choosing to persuade through eloquence rather than sheer force, and the rare moments when he does raise his voice (such as at the explosive end of Act I) are staggering.
Although the power and energy that comes at the end of the first act is never recaptured, the second act focuses less on the characters’ anger or opinions, and instead on their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. As Juror #10, J.C. Calcerano (COL `10) manages to breathe sardonic humor into his attacks on others, and successfully pulls off a bigoted tirade with an intensity and believability that shifts the entire tone of the play.
Ultimately, Juror #3 (Danny Rivera, COL `11) ends up as the most complex and three-dimensional character, as he is the only juror who exhibits true vulnerability or an extended back story. In moments of rage, exasperation, stubborn pleading, or complete emotional breakdown, Rivera brings authentic layers to his character and makes a Juror #3 empathetic figure.
Because 12 Angry Men was written by Reginald Rose in 1954, it inherently comes with dated vernacular and racial tensions. While the vintage feel is still present in the costumes, the play manages to still feel relatively contemporary by avoiding caricatures or exaggeration. The pace is definitely slow at the start, filled with the expected awkward small talk of strangers and a few forced attempts at humor, but the heart of the play remains gripping due to the convincing performances.
The style of the production results in complete audience immersion into the jury room, and while the anonymity of the jurors makes it difficult to connect or identify with them, that only adds to the realism of the situation. While the end verdict is predictable, the course the deliberation takes manages to produces enough twists and surprises to keep viewers riveted.