Animals of the Jury Roundtable at NYU

Last night I had the pleasure of participating in the roundtable “Animals of the Jury,” convened and moderated by Joshua Williams as part of NYU Tisch Drama’s Theatre Studies program.

We discussed Phantom Limb Company‘s latest work, 12 Angry Animals, which adapts Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men to imagine a “future dystopia in which 12 endangered animals (actors in mask) debate the guilt or innocence of the last known surviving human for the destruction of the planet.” It was a real treat to be in dialogue with Jessica Grindstaff (Phantom Limb Company and the show’s director), Naama Harel (Columbia University), and Karl Steel (Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center).

Two animal jurors argue.

12 Angry Animals fascinates as it deploys anthropomorphic characters to protest anthropocentrism. The irony, of course, is that language use has, historically, been a major claim for human exceptionalism. The script pokes at the tensions of our contemporary contradictions in which zoos are both sites of forced captivity and possibly protection within the context of extreme habitat loss, and granting legal personhood to non-humans sometimes seems like the best strategy to secure rights within a legal framework. The show’s body work and soundscape are stirring.

Erik Sanko’s gorgeous animal masks and the dapper costumes transform the actors as they embody creatures who bicker and confront each other. Anthropomorphic animal characters can create a disturbing and unconvincing hybrid aesthetic (recently discussed when the Cats trailer dropped this summer).

12 Angry Jurors solves the aesthetic problem of anthropomorphism beautifully. If the costumes were too “costume-y,” they could seem cartoonish. Instead, everything was elegant. While the human clothes and detailed masks intentionally contrast species boundaries, gloves mitigate the human hand vs. paw/hoof dilemma. The gloves match the human costumes and blend into the actors’ animalized movements.

Having read the 12 Angry Animals script but not having seen the production until after the roundtable, I chose to focus my comments on both the exciting adaptation and what I thought the Tisch students would connect with: animality, actor training, and mid-twentieth-century US American psychological realism.

When it comes to adaptations, I’m always curious about what the source material means and meant and what motivates cultural producers to turn back to that material for inspiration. The 1954 teleplay and 1957 12 Angry Men film take place during the Cold War and post-WWII white flight. The film stars Henry Fonda, Lee Cobb (who originated the role of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman), and John Fiedler (who always sticks in my mind as Karl Lindner from A Raisin in the Sun). Thus, I interpret the work as a manifestation of mid-twentieth century US realism.

It is so much about whiteness and masculinity parsed by class and ethnicity. Sweat, sport jackets, and ties telegraph different dispositions and class positions as the men deliberate the fate of a young defendant accused of murder. As the film and 12 Angry Animals melded in my mind, I made these notes: Lee Cobb is a Tiger, Henry Fonda is a Mandrill, John Fiedler is a Proboscis Monkey, Ed Begley is a Black and White Ruffed Lemur.

In Rose’s narrative, the absent presence of women and people of color propel the plot, as the ethnicity of the defendant is not mentioned, but many believe he is supposed to be imagined as a young man of color. The plot turns on the vanity of an unseen female witness for the prosecution who testified without wearing her eyeglasses.

I asked Grindstaff how the absent presence of race and gender in the original informed 12 Angry Animals. She shared illuminating insights about the devising process and how the multiracial and mixed gendered cast chose which animal to embody. When the actors remove their endangered animal masks at the end of the show, yet another dimension to the performance was revealed. I look forward to seeing future iterations of this evocative piece.

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