What brave new doc is this, that has such conviction in it? 'Tis "Shakespeare Behind Bars," an arresting account of inmate thesps preparing and performing a production of "The Tempest" at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in La Grange, Ky. Pic could find appreciative auds in limited theatrical furloughs prior to global tube airings.

What brave new documentary is this, that has such conviction in it? ‘Tis “Shakespeare Behind Bars,” an arresting account of inmate thesps preparing and performing a production of “The Tempest” at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in La Grange, Ky. Pic could find appreciative auds in limited theatrical furloughs prior to global tube airings, and may later be used as a teaching tool in theater, sociology and criminal science disciplines.

Written and directed by long-time collaborators Hank Rogerson and Jilann Spitzmiller, smartly constructed pic focuses on the Shakespeare Behind Bars acting ensemble during its seventh year of operation at the Kentucky facility.

Volunteer director Curt Tofteland oversees rehearsals, but recedes into the background early on as the pic concentrates on his cast. During interactions and one-on-one interviews taped on HD video over 37 weeks, felons in the theater program (identified only by first names) gradually reveal themselves as unexpectedly insightful and self-aware. More surprisingly, cons are mostly well-spoken and civil, except for an occasional flurry of “artistic differences” (which, fortunately, are not settled with shivs or smackdowns).

At first, it’s mildly disconcerting — and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny — to watch and listen while these burly tough customers tackle iambic pentameter. But amusement gives ways to empathy as pic uncondescendingly conveys the enthusiasm and industriousness of those who take part in the Shakespeare program. Despite a few minor setbacks — one actor is transferred to a different facility, another is banished to solitary confinement — the show must go on.

Echoing Tofteland’s observation that the Bard’s final masterpiece emphasizes “a theme of forgiveness,” several thesps speak of being influenced by their desire for personal redemption while selecting parts in “The Tempest.”

Hal, the sad-eyed con cast as Prospero, is affectingly eloquent as he speaks of his struggle to forgive himself, much like Prospero ultimately finds strength to renounce vengeance and forgive enemies. Red, a self-described bisexual cast as Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, draws on his own unresolved feelings about his parents while fashioning his performance. (At one point, Hal helpfully suggests: “You need to wax your upper lip again.”)

Rogerson and Spitzmiller establish each inmate as engagingly sympathetic before revealing any details of past crimes. As a result, pic is genuinely shocking when some of the more personable inmates — including murderers, drug dealers and a serial child molester — finally get around to explaining why they’re in prison.

Cynics witnessing these testimonies may wonder if the Bard-influenced inmates protest too much while depicting themselves as victims. If these guys really are good actors — and, truth be told, a few appear truly talented — are they playing a part while they justify themselves?

Still, there’s no denying the pic’s overall impact as a compelling study of art as a source of transcendence. And it will come as no surprise if this well-crafted doc eventually serves as source material for a dramatic feature.

Shakespeare Behind Bars

Production

A Philomath Films production in association with Independent Television Service (ITVS) and BBC. Produced by Jilann Spitzmiller. Executive producers, Sally Jo Fifer, Nick Fraser. Directed, written by Hank Rogerson, Jilann Spitzmiller.

Crew

Camera (color, HD video), Shana Hagan; editor, Victor Livingston; music, James Wesley Stemple; Doug Rider, music engineer; sound, Geoff Maxwell, Joe Bergman, Jon Wermuth. Reviewed on videocassette, Houston, Jan. 18, 2005. (In Sundance Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 92 MIN.
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