“12 Angry Men” Rebirths Classic

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

After I see a play—any play—I ask myself: “Could I have just read it instead?” The value of translating the words of the playwright from the Cartesian Theatre to the actual theatre—to living flesh and blood—is often unclear, and the uninspired performance predictably muddles the resonation of the play’s themes with the heart and mind. If the preview I saw this Sunday was any indication, though, Twelve Angry Men (directed by James Robinson ’10 and Dustin Trabert ’10) answers this question by embodying the biological and psychological fluidity of the human being that cannot be so easily simulated by mere imagination.

Nominally speaking, Twelve Angry Men (opening April 10) concerns the verdict deliberations of 12 jurors in determining the guilt or innocence of a sixteen-year-old boy accused of murdering his father. In the New York City of the 1950s, a contextualizing setting hard to completely extricate from the interplay of events (but why would you want to?), this carries with it a mandatory punishment of death via electrocution.

“It’s not what’s usually done at Swarthmore,” said Kim Kramer ’10, who plays Juror 11. “I think Swarthmore usually tries to push the boundaries of theatre… but it’s good to think of where we came from, to get back to the roots of theatre.”

“It’s a reinvention of a classic without completely redoing it,” added Will Treece ’11, who plays Juror 9.
With the caveat that my only prior impression of Twelve Angry Men is from a sleepy viewing session in 8th grade civics, I would agree with Treece and Kramer in their assessment in that the performance stays close to its roots—characterization and ambiguity—while injecting new life into the text. Robinson and Trabert’s conception of Twelve Angry Men can first and foremost be distinguished from its teleplay, film, and play counterparts by its inclusion of women in the cast, breaking down the eponymous gender boundary of the original script. (“Why not Twelve Angry Men and Women or Twelve Angry Persons?” “Because we already made the poster.”)

“Very early on, [Trabert] and I said that if this were a play with 12 men, it would not be something we would have done. Just the gender dynamics that are added by the fact that instead of twelve men, there are six men and six women… the fascinating new things that come out of a text that was never meant for that sort of thing… makes the play feel new, and so different,” Robinson said. The emergent properties of inserting the gender binary into a traditionally monogendered play are surprisingly coherent and generative: odd implications of flirtation develop from once-mundane conversation pieces, and gender-power dynamics naturally develop. What’s interesting, too, is how well the gendered elements seem to enliven playwright Reginald Rose’s text; the new gender-play seems to have helped the actors to vivify some characters frankly boring in the movie, such as the Foreman (Juror 1, played here by Carson Young ’10).

The synergistic effect of gender on the performance seems to point to a larger trend, that the actors know enough about their own characters to play off of each other, to help each other toward a convincing simulacrum of human conflict. “Each of us separately had a meeting with our directors talking about character background: what age we thought we were, what we thought of McCarthy, why we moved to New York,” said Michael Edmiston ’12, who portrays Juror 10. The jury room is a powderkeg (whether or not all of the characters realize this), and it’s a curious application of the Rorschach principle to observe eleven react to one at any given moment. The performance oscillates between crescendo-patterned periods of intensity as the viewpoints and emotional baggage of the jurors all clash… and more subdued intervals during the breaks in the blitzkrieg.

In these moments especially—where the idiosyncrasies of the characters as they recoup, recap, and recover from the conflict of the jury room surface—the preparation the actors have taken in forming the persona is manifest. There’s a lot to learn by examining who chats with whom (and who does any chatting at all), the minutiae of their small talk, their idle gestures, their interactions with the lingering bits of evidence and jury-artifacts strewn across the room.

“We don’t know each other, and the audience doesn’t know our background, either. Sometimes pieces of it get revealed, and sometimes it doesn’t… but that’s the show. It’s highly secret. We haven’t been telling each other, really,” said Mark Lewis ’10, who plays Juror 2.

The play seems to especially reward evaluation and theory in the heat of moment, in-step with the action. “Every actor has been instructed to give a lot of consideration as to when and why they change their vote—we all do it at slightly different times… how long before the vote did you change your vote? Can you pinpoint the exact moment?” Lewis said. I agree with the implicit consequence of this preparation: that these sorts of minute, subtle shifts in dramatic flow are perceptible to the audience.

Overall, the production here is a tremendous improvement over the often black-and-white characterizations of the Jurors in the film. “As rehearsals have progressed, we’ve definitely gotten away from saying ‘This character is a good guy’ and ‘This character is a bad guy.’ Realizing how hypocritical people are… and how certain people win at the end is important,” Treece said. Swarthmore’s Twelve Angry Men does not insult your ability to make moral judgments on your own terms; no one character necessarily has a monopoly on truth or virtue, and the most vile and repugnant words come out of otherwise reasonable men and women. It’s worthwhile, too, to keep track of who does and who does not come through this experience in one piece. For some, the trial is irrevocably deconstructive… for others, a mere detour to their normal lives.

The one criticism I have of the performance is minor at worst and ephemeral at best, in that the first ten minutes or so did not seem to do justice to the last ninety or so… it seemed to take the actors a bit to collectively make the leap from being good to being great. (Admittedly, given the initial in-universe awkwardness of the beginning of the play [and the hurried conditions of what I am to understand was the first run-through], this may be an unfair remark.). If the actors harness the same energy from the start that I saw them build up and sustain throughout the preview, their ultimate performance will be explosive (and I mean that in all the best ways).

“In a way, this play is this giant, weird experiment where [Trabert and I] said to 12 actors that they had to figure out who these people are, their backgrounds, their lives. And, now, we have these people who aren’t necessarily what Reginald Rose imagined, but 12 interesting and complicated characters that fit in the script,” Robinson said.

Being the curmudgeon that I am, my cynicism typically only allows me to admit that a given production at best faithfully and skillfully evokes the vision of the playwright, implicitly denigrating the creative generativity of those involved in the performance. Here, though, I might be forced to admit that Robinson and Trabert’s production has helped to add something genuinely worthwhile to Rose’s play: 12 beating hearts.

(The views contained in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Daily Gazette as a whole.)


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