Review: Twelve Angry Men (Soulpepper)

Photo of Byron Abalos, Joseph Ziegler, Michael Simpson, Stuart Hughes, Jordan Pettle, and Tony DeSantis from Twelve Angry Men by Cylla Von TiedemannSoulpepper revives the classic courtroom drama, on stage at the Young Centre in Toronto

Jury duty. There may be no better way to understand how people truly are, to see how personal biases and prejudices actually affect an individual, than to sit 12 strangers in a room for a few days straight, abruptly interrupting their lives for that time, and have them unanimously decide a person’s fate in court. It’s why so many people do their best to avoid being summoned for it.

In 1954, playwright Reginald Rose wrote Twelve Angry Men to explore humanity trapped in this microcosm at play: 12 men locked in a room decide the fate of a 16-year-old boy accused of manslaughter. If he is guilty, he gets sentenced to the chair. If he is not guilty, he walks away. The television play was made successfully into a stage play and then later a successful movie. The text has been studied in theatre and English classes for years. To start off the 2016 season, Soulpepper brings Twelve Angry Men to the Young Centre for the Performing Arts stage and it is incredible.

There are numerous reasons why this production of Twelve Angry Men stands out. It starts with the stage designed by Yannik Larivée, the first thing you see when you take your seat. The production is staged in the round with the audience surrounding the enclosed jury room set, emphasizing how enclosed and suffocating the experience is for these jurors. Depending on which side of the stage you are seated at, your view of the action and the facial expressions of the actors will be different; who you relate to will be different. This is one of the remarkable things about this story.

The performances here are simply remarkable. The 12 jurors are nameless and are only referenced by their juror number. Slowly, gradually, their character and personality is revealed. What should be an open and shut case slowly unravels starting with one juror, number 8 (Stuart Hughes), who is the first to vote not guilty due to reasonable doubt. Hughes does fine work as the catalyst that slowly turns the entire jury around: he is defiant, unwavering, and dead set in his convictions.

On the other side of that is Juror 3 (Joseph Ziegler) who is dead set in his own ways, determined that he knows what kids like the accused are like and that there is no reasonable doubt, the boy is guilty. His prejudices and biases fuel his anger and drive his character, making him someone that was both familiar and uncomfortable to watch.

Ever since I first studied Twelve Angry Men in high school drama class, I always sided with not guilty. To this end, I enjoyed watching Juror 5 (Bryan Abalos) — whose background is similar to the accused, which enables him to shed new light on the case and ultimately sway a few votes — and Juror 7 (Cyrus Lane), who as an immigrant in trying times maintains his compassion for humanity and tries to hold the peace throughout. Both roles were exceptionally performed.

The production side of things also do wonders to add to the overall experience. The lighting by Kimberley Purtell and Jareth Li, combined with the sound design by Richard Feren are a wonderful touch. When the storm happens in the second act, I actually looked up to see if it was raining. I also enjoyed the intro and outro music which made the whole experience feel much like a retro courtroom television drama.

I do have a few small quibbles — first, there were moments where some actors were faced away from me that their voices and dialogue became muffled and I wished that they had stronger microphones to pick up their lines. Second, when the jurors are seated at the table, it was a given that half the jurors would have their backs to me, but I do wish that they were seated in a staggered position so that the jurors with their backs to me also weren’t periodically blocking the ones sitting across from them.

Very rarely have I ever gone away from a Soulpepper show disappointed, and this performance of Twelve Angry Men is up there with some of the best I’ve seen. It is worth experiencing if you’re a fan of the original play, movie, or television production, or if you’re interested in seeing humanity at both its finest and worst moments.

Details:

  • Twelve Angry Men is playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane) until February 13, 2016.
  • Performances run Wednesday through Saturday in January, Tuesday through Saturday in February.
  • Show times are at 7:30 pm with matinees Saturdays and some week days at 1:30 pm. See website for details.
  • Tickets are $89 for adults, $35 for children and students with ID.
  • Tickets can be purchased online or by calling (416) 866-8666. Rush tickets are available at the box office an hour before show time, subject to availability.

Photo of Byron Abalos, Joseph Ziegler, Michael Simpson, Stuart Hughes, Jordan Pettle, and Tony DeSantis by Cylla von Tiedemann

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