“12 Angry Men” timely and taut at Monster Box
WATERFORD, Mich. – Monster Box Theatre may be eligible for a community service award; their current production of the American classic drama, 12 Angry Men, offers much needed cathartic relief from the ubiquitous post-election anger that’s being playing out across the country this week. This classic American drama also does an excellent job of framing up some of the prejudices that exist between working class people and elitists, between xenophobic Americans and naturalized citizens, and between big-mouthed bullies and strong silent types.
The original teleplay by Reginald Rose was set in 1954 New York – when capital punishment via electric chair was still in place in NYC, and a woman’s place was in the home. There have been several versions since, including a more modern adaptation titled “12 Angry Jurors,” which is scripted to include women. For contemporary audiences, the very title of the original play reminds us that before the Civil Rights Act of 1957, women were not allowed to sit on Federal juries. Further, it wasn’t until 1973 that all 50 states permitted women jurors.
This Monster Box production, directed by Kenneth Franzel and produced by Artistic Director Paul Stark, sticks to Reginald Rose’s original 1954 script as much as possible. It does include women jurors in the traditional male roles of softball coach, bank teller, stock broker and architect, which works seamlessly. The exact timeframe is kept ambiguous, although there is a side reference to boxing champion Mohammed Ali that pushes it out of the ‘50s. What’s essential in the original script is preserved – the dialog and courtroom conventions that make this play so powerful – while sidestepping the anachronistic problems that crop up in modernized versions. Keeping the setting in the vague past lets us ignore the contemporary use of DNA testing, metal detectors, cell phones, etc., which would fundamentally change the story.
12 Angry Men is one of the few popular modern plays that holds to the three Aristotelian unities of time, place and action. Everything happens in the jury deliberation room immediately following a trial in which a 16-year-old boy faces the electric chair for murdering his father. There’s not a lot of opportunity to introduce new things into this play. But the creative team of Franzel and Stark chose to stage it in the round, with the actors sitting at floor level around a long table and the audience positioned on risers on all four sides. It’s amazingly effective – adding to the claustrophobic effect of the locked jury room and affording the audience a chance to literally look down on these characters and judge them even as they, as jurists, judge the accused.
The plot is simple – the drama complex. The play opens as we overhear the jurists being instructed that they must reach a unanimous decision, beyond a reasonable doubt, of guilty or not guilty. They file into the deliberation room and eventually are seated in order of their jury numbers. They agree to take a preliminary vote to see where everyone stands – and only Juror 8 admits to having a reasonable doubt; the rest are convinced of the defendant’s guilt.
This is one of those plays that all Americans should be required to see, probably as part of their high school civics class. As Juror 8 explores the reasons for her doubt, and engages the others in an examination of the facts presented by the prosecution, we realize that the American system of trial-by-jury is itself on trial. It is the conscience of Juror 8, her belief in owning the consequences of a decision to kill an innocent man or release a murderer, that gives the play its finely tuned tension. And as the other jurors weigh the arguments and reveal their own foibles – intellectual laziness, bigotry, sadism, selfishness, fear of intimidation – we watch a microcosm of American democracy unfold.
Kudos to the ensemble for creating 12 distinct, credible characters with unique backstories that make us want to learn more about them. The heaviest roles fall to Juror 8 (Caitlin Burt, the reasonable, heroic champion of justice), Juror 10 (Jake Scozzaro as a raging bigot who relishes the chance to stick it to one of ‘them’) and Juror 3 (Mike Olsem, the bully intent on bending everyone to his will). That said, this play only works if everyone in the cast works together and in this production, they do. The cast includes: Kristin McLaren (Juror 1), Michelle Resnick (Juror 2), Elizabeth DeWulf (Juror 4), Baron Kind (Juror 5), Justin McLaren (Juror 6), Adam Kabot (Juror 7), Rita Chester (Juror 9), Hani Bay (Juror 11) and Andy Gaitens (Juror 12), plus Jacob Whaley as the Guard and Jake Singer as the voice of the Judge.
Sixty years after it was written, this play continues to engage the audience in its psychological, emotional wrestling. More than a few charges of elitism and not-my-problem attitudes echoed today’s political scenes. The resentment of recent immigrants, distrust of underprivileged urban youths, denial of facts and apathetic smugness on stage at the Monster Box are all too familiar. But these things are a factor in any government “of the people” and we ignore them at our peril. The production of 12 Angry Men at Monster Box Theatre in Waterford is not only cathartic, but convicting.