Who ever would have thought that some of the most significant productions of Shakespeare were occurring behind the walls of a minimum security prison on La Grange, Kentucky? Each year, the Shakespeare Behind Bars program at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex mounts one of the Bard's plays; tragedies like Othello, Titus Andronicus and Hamlet that deal directly with mercy and redemption are always popular. The year this extraordinary documentary was shot inside Luckett, volunteer project director Curt Tofteland had decided on Shakespeare's final — and possibly greatest — play, The Tempest, a somewhat lighter work but one that's no less concerned with forgiveness and deliverance. For Tofteland, prison is the perfect place to stage these classic plays, particularly The Tempest. Like the Prospero, the exiled duke of Milan, and his teenage daughter, Miranda, who have made their home far away from the world on an island, the inmates at Luckett are similarly isolated, cut off from society and wrestling with their own natures. Tofteland also quite rightly sees a certain continuum connecting his felonious actors with the members of Shakespeare's troupe, all of whom were at the time looked down upon as being no better than lowest dregs of society. Unlike so many professional actors, the Bard's words — strange Elizabethan syntax and all — actually mean something to such men who have experienced some of the most extreme circumstances life has to offer. Hal, a soft-spoken man who murdered his wife, can't speak Prospero's words to his motherless daughter, Miranda, "O, what a cherubim thou wast" without remembering how his own terrible act left his own daughter without a parent. Red, a man who, in true Globe fashion, was picked to play the delicate 15-year-old Miranda, uses the questions that once surrounded his own paternity to understand the girl's questions about her mother. The part, he feels, "fits me just right." The hulking Big G, meanwhile, has been cast as the base but fundamentally human monster Caliban, and in order to comprehend this brute he remembers the man he was at 21 when he dealt drugs and killed a police officer in a shootout. The therapeutic value of the program is as obvious as it is immense — instead of learning how to hustle, they're learning iambic pentameter — and the acting is surprisingly good, making the rehearsals thrilling to watch. But filmmaker Hank Rogerson is careful not to whitewash these troubled men by ignoring the reasons — many of them shocking — why they're at Luckett in the first place. Shakespeare himself couldn't have written better or more complex characters, and far from strange, by the end of this extraordinary film you couldn't imagine Shakespeare performed anywhere else.
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