REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Let me state at the outset that I am not a fan of tampering with classics. There has been a penchant of late to succumb to the demands of political correctness and alter classic Broadway musicals and plays to promote racial and gender equality. Although a noble idea, in general, it does not work. Case in point, Oak Park High School’s current co-productions of Twelve Angry Men and Twelve Angry Women. Reginald Rose’s classic courtroom drama was originally presented as a one-hour special on television’s Studio One, broadcast live on CBS in 1954. From there, it was turned, in 1957, into an Oscar-nominated film starring Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb, and finally transformed into the stage play that we still see today.
Credit Oak Park High School’s drama teacher and director Allan Hunt for taking on this challenge to show exactly how a play is changed when its initial concept is altered. The school’s drama students staged both the male and female versions of the play as an experiment, and although there were many outstanding performances in the two versions, the original, with twelve male jurors battling each other over a murder case, is clearly the more effective and the most believable.
Twelve Angry Men is a play that relies on meticulously drawn masculine characters, who are known only by their juror numbers. The characters’ personality foibles are what drive the drama: No. 8’s cool detachment, No. 3’s volatile, stubborn machismo, No. 11’s innate gentility and politeness, and No. 7’s Joe the Plumber everyman. The male cast captured the essence of these characters beautifully. All twelve male performers did their job well, but the standouts included Eric Kellenberger as Juror No. 4, an unflappable button-down Wall Street broker, Alec Mandell in the heroic Henry Fonda role as Juror No. 8, who initially argues for acquittal, David Michael as No. 11, the mild-mannered immigrant watchmaker, and Matt Yulish as No. 7, an impatient Yankee fan/marmalade salesman.
Yulish, as No. 7, was especially good, creating a different character than the boorish ignoramus played by Jack Warden in the 1957 film. Yulish gives a fiery performance, exploding in frustration at every delay in the case and shaking his leg nervously when seated. Michael utilized an effective Eastern European accent in his portrayal as No. 11 and was totally believable, while Josh Katz imbued his performance as No. 3 with an inner torment over his character’s fractured relationship with his own son.
When Mandell, as No. 8, produces a duplicate of the knife used in the murder and slams it down, point first, into the jury room table, it is one of many intense, dramatic moments in the play. All of the cast members did a fine job in delivering their lines as well as communicating their characters’ unique personalities.
In creating the female version of the play, adaptor Sherman Sergel had to change some of the dialog to better suit female characters, such as making No. 7 impatient to attend a performance of Fiddler on the Roof instead of a baseball game (one of director Hunt’s inventions, as he set the play in 1964). No. 5, originally a Baltimore Orioles fan, is now a Shakespeare buff. Other characters are now the wives of husbands with the professions indicated in the male version of the play. But it’s fascinating to watch to see how the perception of each juror’s personality in the female version changes, as well as the audience’s reaction to them.
As in the male version, the actors in the female version of the play had some excellent moments. Kayla Gorenstein gives a wonderful portrayal of the reserved, hesitant No. 11. Melanie Labrecque’s No. 8 plays her part like a confident defense attorney, and Yael Karoly portrays the reluctant forewoman as if she is a substitute kindergarten teacher, trying to keep her unruly students in line.
The three characters whose personalities don’t come off well are the the more aggressive jurors: No. 3, No. 7, and No. 10. Many of their lines brought unexpected laughter from the audience, as their actions just didn’t reflect what women were perceived as being in the early 1960s. This comes across most notably in the scene described above, when No. 8 produces the duplicate knife and slams it into the table, an action that just isn’t very ladylike. In fact, most of the business involving the knife is unconvincing, bringing titters from the audience where it didn’t with the male cast. No. 7, well played by Becca Lonngren, is the only character dressed in a bright color (an orange suit with matching pillbox hat), and comes off as coarse and brassy, almost as if she were a gangster’s moll or a streetwalker, calling the other jurors “Missy” or “Sister.” Another embarrassing moment comes when No. 5 inquires of the calm No. 4, “Don’t you sweat?” something that you would not expect women of that time period to ask. Mia Beckerman’s emotional No. 3 vies with Kayden Delaney’s bigoted No. 10 as the two roles that are least suited to the gender transformation. Both do a good job with their respective parts, but the script doesn’t make these characters believable, resulting in uncomfortable laughter coming from the audience with their every outburst.
Allan Hunt’s original intention was to give equal opportunity to all of his students, as they participated in the production of an classic American drama. Even more than the actual learning of the lines, characters, and blocking, Hunt will have an even more instructional job when he discusses with the two casts how the altering of a playwright’s original intentions changes the perception and effectiveness of a play.
Production manager Russ Peters, with the help of stage designer Kevin Buchanan, created the marvelous courtroom set, with an accurate attention to construction and period detail. Raquel Karoly designed the costumes, which were also appropriate for the period.
Twelve Angry Men / Twelve Angry Women concludes its performances Saturday at Oak Park High School.