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Shout Factory presents
Shakespeare Behind Bars (2005)

"I've often thought that a bunch of convicts would make great actors, because they're used to lying and playing a role. But really it's the exact opposite of that, because you have to tell the truth and inhabit a character."
- Big G

Review By: Dan Heaton  
Published: September 14, 2006

Stars: Curt Tofteland, Leonard, Sammie, Hal, Red, Big G, Rick, Ron
Director: Hank Rogerson

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (language, adult themes)
Run Time: 01h:32m:04s
Release Date: July 18, 2006
UPC: 826663100723
Genre: documentary


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ A-B+B+ A-

DVD Review

Practicing his lines in front of his fellow Shakespeare performers, Sammie generates impressive power while delivering a speech by his character Triculo. An imposing African-American figure with a bald head and broad shoulders, the inmate seems especially likable on the screen and injects tremendous energy into his performance. When we learn his background, it's difficult to believe that he's serving a life sentence for murder. After facing serious abuse as a child, Sammie enjoyed a typical life with his wife, but that ended during one tragic night. While delivering his lines, his genuine emotion makes him differ from the usual impression of a hardened killer. This human side of the long-term prisoners is present throughout Shakespeare Behind Bars—a moving tale of criminals finding a way to express themselves through classic art.

Directed by Hank Rogerson (Homeland), this story chronicles the extensive rehearsals and performance of Shakespeare's final play The Tempest. The site for this theater is Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in La Grange, Kentucky, which offers progressive courses aimed at rehabilitation. Volunteer Curt Tofteland has directed the prisoner troupe since the mid-'90s, and his passion for the material is highly evident. While the actors rehearse, he pushes them to grasp the character's emotions and make them believable. Another interesting figure is Warden Larry Chandler, who describes the typical prison situation accurately and relates his thoughts on their goals for helping the inmates. While he might just be telling the director what he wants to hear, Chandler's intentions appear genuine and are exemplified in the Shakespeare program.

Another intriguing figure is Leonard—a bright, middle-aged guy who thinks seriously about his character. The scene where we discover his heinous crimes is startling and again reveals the contrast between our initial perceptions about the prisoners. All is not going well for Leonard, however, as his solitary confinement and eventual transfer to a maximum security prison requires his role to be recast. While hope exists strongly in this picture, the story also includes sad moments of reality. One likable figure faces rejection from the parole board, and the result frustrates his fellow inmates. After serving 12 years for murder, he seems ready for parole, but instead receives five more years before another hearing. This unfortunate moment reminds us about the impersonal nature of the prison system, which can make life especially difficult for even the most positive individual.

Shakespeare Behind Bars concludes with a montage of the performance, which includes lively versions of the scenes rehearsed during the film. These moments almost make you forget that the participants are criminals who committed some terrible crimes in the past. The story ends with an update on the primary figures that quickly brings us back into the reality of their situation. Utilizing a naturalistic directing style, Hank Rogerson effectively draws us into the prison environment and makes the inmates' situation understandable. Performing Shakespeare may not change things, but it does bring life to a possibly dreary existence, which leads to a compelling film.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Shakespeare Behind Bars offers a clear presentation shot by digital cameras with a limited budget. There is a minimal amount of grain present, and few defects exist on the screen. This documentary does not include the stunning, bright images of major studio films, but that would seem out of place in this intimate story.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: This disc includes a consistent 2.0-channel Dolby Surround track that presents the interviews, rehearsals, and performance effectively. Dialogue is the dominant aspect of thus film, so there are few moments of complex audio. However, this transfer offers the necessary elements to present the engaging film.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 5 cues
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Easy Riders, Raging Bulls; Born Rich
11 Deleted Scenes
3 Feature/Episode commentaries by Prisoners (2); Filmmaker Hank Rogerson and Jilan Spitz Miller
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Bonus Performance Footage (9)
  2. Troupe Update (Text)
Extras Review: Shakespeare Behind Bars includes a surprising collection of extras for an independent release. Two groups of prisoners offer commentaries, with another by Director Hank Rogerson and Producer Jilan Spitz Miller. The first prisoner track comes from Jerry "Big G" Guenther, Floyd Vaughn, and Shakespeare director Curt Tofteland. Big G is especially talkative throughout the feature and interacts well with the other speakers. It's interesting to note that Guenther and Vaughn mention their number when introducing themselves, which is an essential part of their daily life. The second track comes from Tofteland with prisoners Hal Cobb and Leonard Ford, two of the most intriguing figures in the picture. Especially noteworthy is Ford's discussion of solitary confinement and its negative effect on him.

This disc also provides a considerable amount of excised footage from both the rehearsals and the actual performance. The 11 deleted scenes contain a wide array of good material, including more of Hal's backstory and a discussion of everyone's timeframe for meeting with the parole board. The performance selects run about 12 minutes and feature great moments like a silly rap scene and the troupe playing at a women's prison. Another saddening extra is the troupe update, a text section that appears at the end of the film but also is available separately through the menus.

Extras Grade: A-

 

Final Comments

Although its focus is on the performance, Shakespeare Behind Bars does much more than chronicle a series of rehearsals. It also tells the unfortunate stories of men facing up to the violent actions of their past. Supported by informative extra features, this worthy release deserves a recommendation.

 


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