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Classic courtroom drama to begin run Friday

Jan. 30, 2014 @ 07:13 AM

HUNTINGTON — There’s good news and bad news.

The bad news is that you’ve got jury duty.

The good news is they’re serving dinner.

ARTS kicks off its 2014 theater season with the riveting courtroom drama, “Twelve Angry Men” that puts the audience right in the jury room on raised platform seating as the show unfolds around the table below.

Directed by Stephen Vance, the fast and furi­ous drama is set to run at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 31 and Saturday, Feb. 1 as well as 8 p.m. Friday and Satur­day, Feb. 7-8 in the Renaissance Ballroom at the Renaissance Arts Center, 900 8th St., Huntington.

Tickets are $15. Dinner and show tickets are available for $30 by reservation only by calling 304-733-2787. Dinner is sold out Saturday, Feb. 1. Dinner options include chicken cordon bleu as well as vegetarian options.

For those who don’t know the story, the jury room drama is a Sherman Sergel play based on the hit 1957 movie by Reginald Rose and starring Henry Fonda.

As the movie was billed, “Life is in their hands, Death is on their mind,” and “it explodes like 12 sticks of dynamite” the drama unfolds as 12 white men in this “Mad Men” era drama heatedly debate and fight over the fate of an African-Amer­ican teenager from the slums of New York who is accused of stabbing and killing his father.

While it seems like an open-and-shut case, juror #8, played by Dylan Clark, votes not guilty and thus takes the jurors and the audience on a heated odyssey to come to a consensus.

Vance said the show really splays open people’s prejudices and preconceived notions about cases without deep consideration of the facts.

"You see these today with celebrity cases where people think someone is guilty without hearing a shred of evidence and I think we do that in everyday life," Vance said. "The juror who is the hold out doesn't think that the kid is innocent he thinks that it is a mistake to make a presumption that may or may not be true so he holds them to the honor of the system. There are a lot of good people who jump to conclusions." Set in the Renaissance Ballroom, the show will feature dinner in the main part of the ballroom, then for the performance, the audience and the jurors walk into a walled-off jury room.

The vintage door is locked and the actors - just feet away from the audience - sweat it out under the hot stage lights bringing to life a sweltering summer jury room in New York City as their heated arguments pinball back and forth.

"They are going to feel everything and when we start to sweat they will feel it," said Len Trent, who plays juror #3. "It really gives the audience a little taste of the confinement and makes us feel even more confined with them there, when the audience comes in they enter through the jury room door and so it gives them more of a sense of the environment." Vance said the set design and audience placement really puts the drama in your face as the juror's personalities and prejudices surface and boil over.

"We built platforms on either side of the jury table so we have audiences on both sides and the person farthest away from the stage is 16 feet and they are as close as four or five feet," Vance said. "You are looking right down into a jury room." Fellow ARTS company director and veteran actor Mike Murdock, said they've really been molding the ballroom's open space to best fit the particular show.

"This is the third show in this room that is a drastically different use of this space," Murdock said. "This space, if you are creative enough, can be anything. We had it as the 'Cabaret' with the tables in the middle, and we had it as the office for 'Laughter' and now have it as a jury room. That is part of the charm of this space is finding ways to make the audience take part in the play as we are doing it. That is one of the things we have keyed into here." Murdock, who plays the racist juror #10, said he expects the audiences will, as the actors do, have emotional responses as the clashing jurors deliberate so close.

"I think having a racist right in your face that we will get some very visceral reactions from the audience because they are literally a handsreach away," Murdock said.

For the actors involved, the drama has been a fascinating inside look at the jury process in America.

"Easily it could have been walk in and 15 seconds later he is guilty and that is it but that one person in the play said we should at least talk about it," said Todd Green, who plays juror #4 and who is one of the only cast members that has in real life served on a jury. "The more you start talking about it the more you keep thinking about what is a reasonable doubt." Rick Walker, who plays juror #9, said the show has been a fascinating study in how prejudices whether of age, or race or class, come into play.

"Prejudice is a bad word but we all have them," Walker said. "Like in the movie 'Crash' that shows double and triple and reverse prejudice, this is a play that shows how we all walk into that room with preconceived notions as to how justice should be carried out and slowly we have to modify our own thoughts to come to a consensus. The progression of it is what the show is all about." For folks arriving early for dinner, ARTS has an additional treat as they've reached out to the other arts-related entities in the Renaissance Center to make them part of the show.

For the opening weekend, acclaimed visual artist Fern Christian, of the Renaissance Gallery, will have paintings on display and for the second weekend of the show, at 7 p.m. River Magic Chorus will perform a short show one night, followed by the Tri-State Youth Orchestra the next night.

Bil Neal, the current president of ARTS, said that since last year ARTS drew in more than 4,000 people to its six show season, that it was a great way to promote the other arts in the building.

"We really wanted to add to the experience of every guest that sees our show," Neal said. "We are not charging them more money, just giving them something extra. We have some wonderful people who just come to theater shows and some who may just go downstairs to the gallery, and so want to show off a little taste of what we have."

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