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Friday, March 31, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Shakespeare Behind Bars": Convicts doing "The Tempest" feel the power of art

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Shakespeare Behind Bars," a documentary directed by Hank Rogerson. 93 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Varsity, through Thursday.

Two burly men, dressed in drab coveralls, stand in a dusty prison yard, watched over by an observation tower. They are shouting at each other, and their words are those of a poet. "We are such stuff as dreams are made of," intones one, his voice dwindling in the wind. Perhaps somewhere, Shakespeare is listening.

Hank Rogerson's documentary "Shakespeare Behind Bars," about a prison theater troupe's yearlong work toward a production of "The Tempest," is an immensely moving tribute to the power of art.

Like Scott Hamilton Kennedy's equally fine "OT: Our Town" (which chronicled a group of inner-city high-schoolers staging the Thornton Wilder play), it explores the process of putting on a play, letting us watch an unlikely cast discover language anew. Here, the players are observed constantly, like actors in a theater, and after their triumphant debut there is little celebration — just an escorted return to the prison's quiet hallways.

The men of this group, all inmates at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Kentucky, do not easily engage our sympathies. Among those we meet are murderers (one speaks of killing his pregnant wife by deliberately dropping a hair dryer into her bathtub) and child molesters. But many speak of remorse and shame, of a desire to not be remembered solely by the worst thing they ever did. One quietly observes, "The people who need mercy the most are the ones who deserve it the least."

Through the play, with its themes of banishment and forgiveness, they seem to be learning more about themselves. And their performances, though hardly of professional quality, take on an emotional quality that sometimes soars.

Watching them, I remembered seeing a high-school production of "West Side Story" years ago. Though technically it was far from perfection, it was one of the most moving experiences I've had in a theater — those teenagers understood this story of star-crossed kids at a deeper, more intuitive level than a grown-up professional could reach. The familiar tale became devastating: Rather than the actors becoming part of the art, the art had become part of the actors.

As "Shakespeare Behind Bars" unfolded, I thought of those teens, who may well still remember being transformed, however briefly, by those moments on stage. Likewise, these prisoners, despicable as their crimes may be, found fleeting grace in Shakespeare's words.

Haltingly, one recites a line that understandably haunts him: "As you from crimes would pardon'd be / Let your indulgence set me free."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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