In my most recent review (of Harold & Maude at Buck Creek), I confessed to a lack of understanding as to just how much a director is allowed to do with an unwieldy script. The rules of script licensing are a mystery to me, so all-too-frequently I leave a production with no real understanding of just how much credit (or blame) a given director deserves for a good (or bad) stage production.
As if on-cue, The Belfry’s production of Twelve Angry Men comes along and upends all my assumptions about what directors are and are not allowed to do. Twelve Angry Men offers a fascinating illustration of how directorial choices can affect a finished product – and leaves me even more confused than before as to a director’s proper role.
But first: the production itself. The Belfry has assembled a strong ensemble, most notably in the supporting roles. Daniel Shock is pitch-perfect as Juror #7, a loudmouthed lout who’d rather be at the ball game than deciding a young man’s fate. I’d say that Shock was under-utilized (he is always terrific), but his casting makes sense as the script’s few comic moments rest on Juror #7’s impeccable timing. Kudos, also, to Jeremy James whose turn as Juror #11 (the lone immigrant in the room) was quietly powerful. And, like Shock, he chose an accent he could master; it never slipped. Finally, a nod to Russ Clinton for a natural, believable performance.
Of the principal characters, Clay Mabbitt (as Juror #3) really steals the show, pulling off the best portrayal of this role I have ever seen. His self-righteous fury was so convincing, by the end of the play I was really hoping I wouldn’t run into him in the lobby. Yet at the same time, Mabbitt so artfully navigates Juror #3’s few moments of moral clarity, he somehow manages to make the character almost sympathetic. Simply superb!
Aside from the strong acting, the aspect of this show likely to elicit the strongest reactions from attendees – both positive and negative – will be the director’s decision to cast an actual, visible defendant for the audience to watch throughout the show. Having seen productions of the same show in Beech Grove and Tipton a few years back – productions which did not showcase a visible defendant – I can only assume that the accused is not listed as a mandatory character in the script. So does this mean the director chose to create this character out of thin air? If so, I am left conflicted. On the one hand, I feel compelled to applaud the director for stepping outside the box and trying something different; I am always in favor of pushing the envelope. But on the other hand, this upends everything I have ever been told about the role of a director in staging a licensed work. Setting aside for the moment the question of whether this was an effective choice, I remain flummoxed as to why this is a permissible choice.
[The accused (played by Brad Miller) paces, grimaces, and emotes in a very cool elevated, cut-out jail cell upstage of the action. When combined with the sleek, sterile, stainless-steel look of the jury room, this is one of the more visually-arresting sets I’ve seen in a while. High praise to the set designer!]
The decision to create the fourteenth character (12 jurors, the bailiff, and the newly-created defendant) might not be so jarring but for the fact that the director cast the defendant in such a way as to change the very meaning of the play. Without delving too deeply into its details, Twelve Angry Men is at its core an examination of prejudice in the hearts of men. By never seeing the accused (and given the pre-civil-rights timeframe), audiences are left to assume that there is a racial component undergirding the storyline. But by casting a white defendant with an (almost) exclusively-white jury, The Belfry’s production necessarily strips all racial overtones from the material. While in theory this might open the door to deeper, more interesting subtexts involving classism or jingoism, in practice it makes much of the dialogue (particularly from Juror #10) confusing. It likewise strips one of the more powerful moments of the play (a visual tableau of the jurors literally turning their backs on Juror #10’s overt prejudice) of nearly all meaning; can you imagine a room full of white men in the 1950s (or even today) so disgusted as to physically turn away from someone’s overt distaste for – what was the basis for prejudice against this particular accused? – poor people? immigrants? young people who shop at Sears? Me neither.
[ImagineTo Kill A Mockingbird cast with a white Tom Robinson. Sure, I guess you could do it – but why? In the end, have you improved the source material – or confused it?]
Yet while tinkering with the very meaning of the play in one respect, The Belfry’s production cleaves to certain other traditions. For example, the director chose to maintain the pre-civil-rights setting rather than pull the play into present day. In that same vein, The Belfry’s production sticks (mostly) with the traditional all-white racial makeup of the jury – an approach eschewed by other recent productions (both stage and screen) of this script. Similarly, a quick Google search will reveal innumerable productions of this show billed as Twelve Angry Jurors so as to allow for the inclusion of female cast members – an interesting choice which could add a fascinating subtext of gender bias to the group dynamic. Yet the director chooses to maintain the setting and the traditional casting. In other words, the director had a variety of choices available to her which could have altered the play in various subtle ways. Would any of us (myself included) be upset by an updated version with a more racially-diverse jury including some female members? Probably not. Then why does the choice to cast the defendant feel different somehow?
Likewise, the size of the jury room reflects another directorial choice which, in my view, radically changes the play. For those of us who still remember the 1957 Henry Fonda movie, Twelve Angry Men always seemed to me to be as much about the effects of stress-torture on group psychology as it was about racism in the judicial process. The claustrophobic quarters, the sweltering conditions, the implicit guarantee that they would remain trapped in that tiny room until they achieved unanimity – where many remember the movie as a laudable tale of justice triumphing over racism, I remember it as a cautionary illustration of how subtle stress techniques can melt even the iciest resolve. But when the jury room suddenly becomes 30+ feet wide and no one seems particularly uncomfortable except for the rare occasions when the script includes dialogue about the heat, suddenly this is a different show. Not necessarily worse – just different.
Whether good or bad, all of these were directorial choices – choices which lead me back to my core complaint/confusion from my review of Harold & Maude at Buck Creek: if directors are allowed to change subtext and character dynamic (by changing the racial makeup of a cast), if they are allowed to change the cast list (so as to accommodate newly-invented characters), if they are allowed to tinker with the core meaning of the play (by removing race from a play ostensibly about racism), and if they are allowed even to change the name of the play (to accommodate female casting), then should they also be allowed to cut scenes, trim lengthy monologues, adjust dialogue, or take other steps to improve unwieldy scripts? Why is one type of change permissible yet another will elicit angry bromides about fidelity to the author’s vision?
What do you think? Most of you will have significantly more experience dealing with directors, scripts, and playwrights than I, so please share your thoughts. What can a director do, and what should a director do? Does directorial discretion go too far if it changes the meaning of the play, or is that precisely what we want from directors, i.e., to challenge our understanding of certain scripts with new, novel approaches?
For me, the jury is still out.