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Regional Reviews by Gavin Logan

Twelve Angry Men

To open its 2010-2011 season, Vertigo Theatre, Calgary's only professional theatre devoted exclusively to the mystery genre, presents its audience with a compelling and brilliant production of the classic Reginald Rose play Twelve Angry Men. The play, based on Rose's real-life experience as a juror in New York City, is an insightful exploration of not only the pitfalls of the American legal system, but also of the human psyche. The story involves the jury (the angry men of the title) of a murder trial in which a sixteen-year-old African-American youth is charged with the murder of his father. What unfolds is a fascinating and thought-provoking series of arguments in the jury room about why the young man in question is or is not guilty. As more and more evidence is scrutinized, the idea of reasonable doubt is explored fully, along with the implications of not only possibly sending an innocent man to jail, but also of possibly letting a guilty man go free. In the process, the biases of the jury are revealed and scrutinized as well.

According to the program notes, Rose tinkered with the script throughout his life. The version being presented by Vertigo was written in 1996 for a production at the Bristol Old Vic, which was directed by Harold Pinter. Vertigo Theatre has done as excellent job of interpreting Rose's definitive version of his most famous work, and much of this success must be attributed to its director, Kate Newby.

Newby has accomplished an incredible feat with this production. Twelve Angry Men unfolds in real time; often this presents problems of pacing and focus, but in Newby's finely nuanced production, there is not a single moment wasted, nor does the show lag at any point during the evening. Among the more impressive elements of Newby's staging is the seamless way in which she manages to shift focus from one juror to the next, whilst never losing the true-to-life, confrontational and conversational style of the script. Even when voices are overlapping, it never once feels overwhelming; Newby's clever blocking guides the audience along, directing us to focus our attention on whichever character she seems to feel is the most important in each particular moment. Also impressive is her use of tableau to create the many different moods expressed by the characters; throughout the two hours, the men are constantly moving, assuming new positions, looking out the windows of the claustrophobic jury room, leaning on water coolers. These seem like such mundane activities, but it is often as compelling to look at who is not speaking and gauge their receptiveness (or lack thereof) by their poses. In what could easily be a very static evening of theatre, Newby manages to keep the proceedings kinetic and dynamic, without unnecessary business.

Also adding to the power of the proceedings is the impressive set design by Terry Gunvordahl. The set is simple and functional; the blandly coloured walls and the small windows of the jury's deliberating room seem present more to tease and torment the jury with small glimpses of the outside world than to offer any fresh air or light into the dingy world of this play. While the entire stage is made use of, Gunvordahl's set grows more and more oppressive as the action moves on; these characters are trapped not only by the claustrophobic walls of the room, but also by their own doubts and biases. The set functions as a metaphor for the closed-mindedness and obstinacy of the jurors as they continually argue their cases for or against a guilty verdict.

The cast, as a whole, is an impressive group. Each character is unique and believable; every member of the ensemble appears to have gone to great lengths to find something distinctive about their character and to bring that distinctiveness to the forefront of their arguments.

As Juror #8, the original standalone man of the story, Duncan Ollerenshaw turns in a finely tuned performance as the man who is not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the young man on trial is guilty. Ollerenshaw displays great patience and world-weariness as he tries his hardest to explain his doubts to a panel of shocked disbelievers, and throughout the course of the evening one gets a sense that even this standalone man is tortured by the possibility of setting a criminal free. Equally impressive is Paul Cowling (Juror # 10), whose firm belief in the young man's guilt is slowly revealed to be caused by his own prejudices. In his impassioned, eleventh hour speech to his fellow jurors, the audience's reaction is palpable.

Turning in perhaps the finest (and most heartbreaking) performance of the evening is Robert Graham-Klein (Juror #3), a feisty, easily angered "tough guy" who, in a moment of weakness early on in the play, reveals the pain he feels over his relationship with his son. Graham-Klein's grief and anger are real, and there is no doubt at all that his juror is indeed a hurting man. The most powerful moments of the evening come in the dead silence of the theatre as the rest of the jury watches this tough man overtaken by his emotions. Graham-Klein's sobbing evokes true pity for a character who, up to this point, has deserved very little.

It is nice to see a cast made up entirely of actors who live and make their livings in Calgary, also refreshing to note that Greg Spielman (Juror #9) makes his second professional appearance of the year with Vertigo Theatre. Spielman is well-known throughout Calgary due his appearance in over 50 amateur productions, and proves here that he is more than up to the challenge of joining the professional theatre world. Kudos must be given to Vertigo Theatre for supporting and nurturing home-grown talent!

Twelve Angry Men runs until October 10th at Vertigo Theatre (115 - 9th Avenue SE, Calgary, AB, at the base of the Calgary Tower). For tickets, call the ticket office at (403) 221- 3708 or go to www.vertigotheatre.com for information on how to purchase tickets online.

--Gavin Logan



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