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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Theatre review: 12 Angry Jurors’ staging is challenging

Actors do some nuanced work within this problematic device

It’s time for the annual production of 12 Angry Jurors, a script that makes an appearance in Vancouver every couple years, usually from a small or newer theatre company.

Written in 1954 as part of a television anthology series, 12 Angry Men has been adapted for the stage, made into a feature film, and even turned into a couple of television movies. Over the years it has also been re-titled and updated, usually to become gender neutral.

12 Angry Jurors tells the story of a lone juror on a murder trial who has reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the defendant. Refusing to condemn him until they are absolutely sure of his guilt, they become a lone voice among the eleven other jurors in the room. Themes of racism, elitism, and bullying are all explored, making this drama a powerful, and sadly, timeless story.

First time director Sean Anthony has filled the show with an eager cast of community and pre-professional actors who clearly have a lot of love for the production. His central concept for this production, however, is problematic.

One of the challenges with any production of this script is in how to stage the jury sitting around a large table, to ensure the audience can see everyone. In this production, Anthony opts to solve this by splitting the table in half, with the jurors sitting in a straight line at the extreme downstage.

Along with causing some sight-line issues, this “Inception” type bend in reality means when the Jury Foreman speaks to Juror #8 he does so by turning offstage left, towards the wall at his end of the table. To respond, Juror #8 must look offstage right to the other wall, to make it appear like they are actually looking at each other. This concept is only somewhat successful though, and takes a big hit when the characters begin to move about the room. By moving from the table, gravity and reality take over as the characters are now forced to walk towards each other.

In exploring the bullying theme, under Anthony’s direction, characters browbeat others, causing them to hunch their shoulders and shy away. The result is a cut-and-dry approach, and it becomes very one-note.

Some of the actors do some lovely nuanced work within this challenging device though. Christine Rienfort does nice work as a high-status society lady who slowly changes her opinion, albeit a bit reluctantly. Mandana Namazi gives a light touch to the immigrant Juror #11, with a different perspective, and instead of being German she is updated to Syrian. Jon MacDonald also carries a gravitas, but with an understated delivery.

Brett Willis as the original hold out Juror #8 combines stoicism with compassion, staying spontaneous as his character makes new discoveries in the case. He also adds an additional layer to his portrayal by keeping the kernel of doubt in his character’s convictions.

I like to take younger friends to classic theatre pieces to see if they can see why it is considered a classic. During this production I noticed my companion often looking down during act one. I asked him what he thought and his response: “it’s pretty good, but the staging was too complicated.”

This is a young company still finding their feet, and the first production for the director. It is remarkable that Anthony had such a bold vision for the show, and even though it doesn’t fully work, to see such strong risk from a new director bodes well for future projects.

Twelve Angry Jurors, by Sherman L Sergel. Adapted from the television play by Reginald Rose. Directed by Sean Anthony. A Standing Room Only Theatre production. On stage at CBC Studios 700 (700 Hamilton Street, Vancouver) until November 4. Visit for tickets and information.

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