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2005 | 2004 | 2003

1 item from 2005

Shakespeare Behind Bars

1 February 2005 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

PARK CITY -- The universality and humanity of Shakespeare's words have never been more evident than in Hank Rogerson's remarkable documentary "Shakespeare Behind Bars". Film follows a troupe of actor/prisoners for a year as they prepare a production of "The Tempest", a play which fittingly deals with forgiveness and redemption. Emotional honesty of the material should make doc a moving experience in theaters as well as on cable outlets.

Shakespeare has been a part of rehabilitation efforts at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Kentucky for seven years thanks to an enlightened warden who gives Rogerson and his crew surprisingly free reign for a maximum security prison. Inmates have two lives in the film--as actors and prisoners--and we get to follow them into their cells, mess hall and even into solitary confinement.

These are not just your garden variety criminals. Many of them have committed heinous crimes, everything from child molestation to murder. Curiously, Rogerson does not touch on how or why these prisoners were drawn to the program in the first place, but now that they're there, it's easy to see what it means to them. Acting gives them a chance to explore their inner life, and god knows they have plenty of baggage to bring to the process.

Directors always have to put up with unexpected developments, but that's nothing compared to what happens here. Volunteer director Curt Tofteland has to deal with actors dropping out when they are thrown in the hole for misbehaving. "This is Shakespeare behind bars," says one of the actors. "This is not Mary Poppins productions."

Rogerson style is not intrusive, he just sits back and observes and allows the inmates to reveal themselves in their own time. Eventually we get to hear their stories. Hall, who plays the lead Prospero, is a tortured soul who electrocuted his wife by tossing a hair dryer into the bath tub. Grappling to get at the meat of his character he says, "after 46 years of being in a tight clamp, I don't know how to unclamp."

There is something wonderful about watching these macho men struggling to find themselves in their characters. Big G, who plays the monster Caliban, is a burly guy doing time for killing a cop when he was 21. As he works folding wash in the Laundromat, he goes over his lines to himself.

Red, a diminutive black man, reluctantly takes the part of Miranda, a 15 year-old ingenue who doesn't know who her mother is. He is having trouble getting into the character until he realizes that he was the same age when he found out who his father was. It's both surprising and satisfying to see these men finding relevance in Shakespeare's words.

Just as Shakespeare did, Rogerson finds the humanity in his characters. While not mitigating their crimes, the film has the generosity of spirit to see the whole person. As several of the actors come up for parole and we root for them, the film poses tough questions about the nature of forgiveness.

Tofteland believes Shakespeare would have appreciated his motley crew of actors. "People in the theater back in Elizabethan times were thought of as pickpockets, thieves, rapists and murderers," he says. Cinematographer Shana Hagan's unfussy photography and James Wesley Stemple's lovely classical score help set the stage for Shakespeare, but it is these most unlikely actors who make it come alive.


A Philomath Films production in association with Independent Television Service and the BBC


Director: Hank Rogerson

Writer: Rogerson

Producer: Jilann Spitzmiller

Director of photography: Shana Hagan

Music: James Wesley Stemple

Editor: Victor Livingston

No MPAA rating

Running time -- 92 minutes »

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