Sunday, July 14, 2013

12 Angry Men, Blank Canvas Theatre

It’s hard to know when a theater company actually develops its own personality, its distinctive position in the local theater firmament.

Blank Canvas Theatre, now in its second year of operation, is still a work in progress in terms of the kinds of shows it produces—ranging from the ridiculous (Texas Chainsaw Musical) to the sublime (last year’s exemplary Next Fall).

But what can be said now is that BCT always presents a well-thought-out production featuring performances that are fine-tuned to the tone and intent of the script at hand.

The latest example of that skillful work is 12 Angry Men, the American classic by Reginald Rose. Opening virtually on the day that the controversial verdict came down on the Trayvon Martin murder case, acquitting defendant George Zimmerman, this 55-year-old play could not be more current.

The dozen jurors (and one guard) on stage craft an ensemble performance that feels genuine in all respects. Even if there is ultimately less edge and vitriol than one might want, director Patrick Ciamacco blends these actors well and the result is as gripping as ever.

Scott Esposito plays a well-modulated Juror Eight (none have actual names), the man who is the lone holdout for “Not Guilty” as all other 11 jurors think the young accused man from the slums is plainly guilty of murdering his father.

As the discussions in the jurors’ room proceed, each of the men develops his own personality and back story, informing their opinions on the evidence. And this is the genius of Rose’s script, showing how our supposedly fact-based judicial process can be easily hijacked by the individuals who are summoned to pronounce judgment.

The hotheads pushing to fry the accused are played by Mitch Manthey and Robert Hawkes. Manthey uses his imposing physical size as Juror Three to intimidate others, along with his scathing sarcasm, but Manthey also reveals this juror’s weaknesses regarding his own son.

Hawkes as Juror 10 is a half-lidded lizard brain in a sweat-stained sport coat, opining that these kids from the slums are all liars. His second act monologue is eviscerating, and could only be improved by employing the tone of his voice and volume as more of a weapon.

Strong performances are also contributed by Tim Tavcar as the elderly gentleman who switches his vote early on, Curt Arnold as the put-upon jury foreman, and John J. Polk as the shallow ad guy who waffles in the breeze.

It all comes down to reasonable doubt, the squishy standard that is unreasonable for so many reasons. But hey, it’s the only judicial system we’ve got. And this play shows how the decisions it renders can turn on small quirks of personality, happenstance and fate.

12 Angry Men
Through July 27 at Blank Canvas Theatre, 79th Street Studios, 1300 W. 78 St., 440-941-0458

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