The theater is a realm of transformation; a place where actors put on masks and audiences are drawn into new, often fantastical worlds beyond their ordinary experiences. It is also a realm of self-discovery; a mirror through which actors and audiences are invited to look inside themselves and observe their own foibles and imperfections. The power of this art form to connect so deeply with our inner psyches is explored in "Shakespeare Behind Bars," a documentary from writer-director Hank Rogerson. The movie follows a group of Kentucky prisoners who are part of a theater troupe that performs Shakespeare plays for their fellow inmates. Brought to DVD by Shout! Factory, "Shakespeare Behind Bars" is a moving, multifaceted look at the humanity behind society's monsters and the amount of forgiveness we are willing to extend them.
Inside the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in La Grange, Kentucky, prison life goes on as usual. Inmates move under constant scrutiny, spied on through security cameras and from watch towers. Like characters on a stage, they have an audience leering from the dark. How appropriate, then, that their repressed emotions and burning guilt should be vented through the works of Shakespeare. Founded by several inmates and directed by Curt Tofteland, the "Shakespeare Behind Bars" program requires months of rehearsal and preparation for one play every year, during which time the inmates must cast themselves and totally commit to their roles, which frequently hit home in ways they never expected.
The selected play for this season is "The Tempest," Shakespeare's last play and one that holds personal meanings for the prisoners. The hero of "The Tempest" is Prospero, a man isolated on an island with his 15-year-old daughter, Miranda. Through the use of magic, he brings about a terrible storm that causes his treacherous brother, Antonio, to shipwreck on the island, where Prospero gleefully plots revenge. Over the course of the play, Prospero has a change of heart, recognizing his own transgressions and forgiving Antonio of his. The inmates quickly latch onto the themes of introspection and forgiveness in the play and use them as motivations in their performances. They also find connections between the island setting and their prison environment. Above all, they respond to the lesson that the key step in forgiveness is learning to forgive yourself.
Surprisingly, Shakespeare makes up only one side to this documentary. Although the movie is filled with bright and often poignant moments during rehearsals, Hank Rogerson makes sure that viewers understand the heinous nature of these men's crimes. Armed robbery, murder, and child molestation are just a few of the unspeakable offenses that the inmates are convicted of. Some of the most deeply affecting scenes are those in which we hear candid confessions from the prisoners. Rogerson wisely holds the confessions until long after we have become acquainted with the men, allowing us to see them first as human beings. In their interviews, they come across as thoughtful, remorseful, sensitive, and frequently articulate. This consequently makes their crimes all the more shocking, forcing viewers to reevaluate their views not only of the prisoners, but of human nature in general.
One of the interesting points made by Tofteland in the film is that in Shakespeare's day, actors were held in low regard socially. They were often thieves and criminals, and their audiences were comprised of common folk who were sometimes no better off than the actors themselves. Somewhat buried under the sophisticated and intellectual aura contemporary audiences have built up around Shakespeare is the fact that his plays were written for the masses and touched on universal themes. The subjects of this documentary capture an element of Shakespeare's time that is understandably missing from most professional productions. Aside from the obvious fact that the "Shakespeare Behind Bars" troupe is all male, these men represent the lowest of society and play to that audience. They perform with a passion that has little, if anything, to do with a love for acting, but more so with an understanding of the emotional journeys taken by Shakespeare's characters.
Make no mistake, this film in no way purports that the prisoners' lives are miraculously transformed by this program or that they necessarily become better citizens. Indeed, we learn of one man who performed in the very first production and, years later, committed suicide. The primary focus of this movie is on the ways in which artistic works transcend the media to touch people on a deeper level. I do not feel that Rogerson is asking us to necessarily forgive the inmates for their crimes or to accept them as psychologically cured simply because they are performing Shakespeare. Rather, we are witness to the emotional obstacles they must overcome to forgive themselves and begin to improve their lives.
Shout! Factory's DVD release of "Shakespeare Behind Bars" is a small triumph. The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. As it was shot with digital cameras on a low budget, the print looks as good as it possibly can. Image is quite clear with only minimal digital noise, and brightness levels are fine. Some occasional edge enhancement is noticeable, but given the subject matter and the shooting circumstances, the picture quality is impressive.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. Like the picture, the sound was not recorded in high quality, so there is little that can be done with it. At times, dialogue is slightly harsh, while at other times it is difficult to hear, but generally it sounds fine. There are no alternate language or subtitle options.
The special features are where this DVD really shines. First up are three audio commentaries. The first features Curt Tofteland, along with prisoners Jerry "Big G" Guenthner and Floyd Vaughn. The second features Tofteland again with prisoners Hal Cobb and Leonard Ford. Hal and Leonard were two of the most open members of the troupe, and their track is a little more involved than the first, though both are of great interest and provide further background information on the inmates shown in the film. The third track is provided by Hank Rogerson and producer Jilann Spitzmiller. They help put into context the footage shown in the film and provide outsiders' perspectives on life inside the prison.
After this, we have 11 deleted scenes. These cover a range of subjects, from Bruno, the Swiss inmate who paints the backdrops for the productions, to further rehearsal moments. The most harrowing of these outtakes is "Hal's Backstory," an extension of one of the most provocative scenes in the film, in which Hal Cobb describes how he murdered his wife.
Next is a series of bonus performance footage. This is an entertaining collection of some of the most colorful moments from the final production. Most surprising is a look at the troupe's performance at a women's prison, where they do not shy away from showing off their machismo for the ladies.
Lastly is a troupe update, which plays automatically after the movie.
"Shakespeare Behind Bars" is a truly compelling examination of the extent to which art can lift the human spirit, no matter how tragic the surrounding circumstances may be. The inmates at Luther Luckett become just as fascinating as the characters they portray, and their journey from casting call to curtain call is filled with surprising revelations. As Jacques in Shakespeare's "As You Like It Said" said, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts." For a while, Luther Luckett Correctional Complex is our stage, and the inmates our players. They put on masks and perform for us, but they discover what is hidden deep within themselves and reveal much more than they conceal.