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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Fifty Foot Penguin stages
a powerful Twelve Angry Men

Also see Rick Fournier's review of Wild Swans

Twelve Angry MenI find Fifty Foot Penguin Theater not guilty of timidity. In a time of scaling back and producing small-cast plays to match reduced theater budgets, tiny Fifty Foot has the temerity to present a 13-person classic, Reginald Rose's 1950s courtroom drama, Twelve Angry Men. The result is a potent, actor and dialogue-driven 75 minutes of ensemble theater.

The action takes place not in court, but in a claustrophobic jury room on a hot day, where 12 white male jurors must decide on the guilt or innocence of a 19-year old minority boy from the slums, who is accused of fatally stabbing his abusive father. It seems to be a straightforward case of capital murder, with nothing to support the boy's claim of innocence. But, for the sake of discussion, juror number Eight votes "not guilty" and releases into discomforting play the jurors' prejudices, empathies, personal histories, arrogance and rigidity.

On the company's closed-in set, separated from the audience on two sides by hip high walls, you hear the judge, off stage, instructing the jury. Then the 12 men file into the jury room. Immediately, the all male, white jury and lack of air conditioning tips you to the period of the play, and the bow ties and suspenders of the suits in Emily Heaney's costume design reinforce a sense the conservative '50s.

Director Zach Curtis pulls strong performances from his actors, some nuanced, others like steam rollers. As juror Eight, silver-haired Bruce Hyde effectively plays the role of an advocate for justice in a jury that's practically baying for the boy's blood. Like a Columbo detective, he raises questions about timing, the validity of witnesses and the credibility of evidence. He provokes a confrontation in order to demonstrate a point, and he insists upon the standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Quietly articulate and persistent, juror Eight is opposed by the steely rationality of juror Four, who is well played with a Yale accent by Edwin Strout. Amid tension, accusations and an undercurrent of incipient violence in the heat, the jurors begin to question their conclusion of guilt. First to go is juror Nine, played with sympathy by elderly Chuck Torrey. Quiet juror Five, Brian Columbus, and Dale Pfeilsticker, as nerdy juror Two, follow.

Ari Hoptman's sensitive Eastern European immigrant anchors discussion in the idealism of the American Constitution, but dominating the action is the physical presence of tall juror Three, played with loud-mouthed panache by Bob Malos. Three is a shallow authoritarian, an angry man, who uses shame, ridicule and bullying to bludgeon others into submission. Across the table from Three fidgets David Coral, juror Ten, another large man, this one an ignorant racist.

Rose's Twelve Angry Men is a period tour de force that plays identifiable American types one-against-another in a frankly theatrical way. In lesser hands than director Curtis's, it could come over in 2003 as melodramatic and didactic. But Curtis calibrates each performance of his accomplished cast, tamping there, stoking here, and he paces the action for full audience engagement.

My verdict? Don't miss it.

Twelve Angry Men December 5 - December 20, 2003. Thursdays through Sundays 7:30 p.m. $15. Cedar Riverside People's Center. 425, 20th Avenue South, Minneapolis. Call 612 381-1110.



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Elizabeth Weir



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