Shakespeare's The Tempest, with its gorgeous poetry and deeply philosophical take on human existence, may be the Bard's greatest play, an assumption reinforced by Shakespeare Behind Bars. In this riveting documentary by Hank Rogerson, a group of convicts incarcerated at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in La Grange, Kentucky, performs the play as part of their rehabilitation. The Shakespearean program is in its seventh year of operation, and this particular production is cannily helmed by the intensely energetic volunteer director Curt Tofteland, who elicits the deepest of emotion, as well as the most ringing poetry from his performers.

The play, with its ultimate theme of forgiveness, is particularly apt for these players, never more so than when Hal, a convicted pedophile cast as Prospero, speaks of his need to forgive himself. Red, an admitted bisexual and victim of childhood abuse, who plays the heroine, Miranda, describes his identification with the role through the character's ambivalence about her parents. It's a tribute to the dry-eyed empathy of the filmmakers that these men, guilty of the most heinous crimes of murder and violence, somehow manage to win your sympathy as they struggle with their lines and lives behind bars. The camaraderie they achieve through their thespian baptism is truly moving to see. As with any theatrical production there are ups and downs, but the ones here consist of actors being taken out of commission through solitary confinement and prison transfers, rather than other job offers or sundry forms of unprofessionalism.

We are also given a pretty full and highly absorbing view of life in prison, which is compared to the isolated island where the play is set, as we hear the convicts' own accounts of the monotony and ever-mounting restrictiveness of their daily grind. But perhaps the film's greatest achievement is its simple recording of these lost souls' Shakespearean acting, which, for all of its occasional shakiness or clumsiness, has a resonant ring of truth which oftimes eludes the most celebrated of legit theatrical royalty when they posturingly perform these works. The point is made that in Shakespeare's time, actors were often no better than criminals themselves, and as one of the inmates observes, "We criminals are always acting, but with Shakespeare nothing works but the total truth."

-David Noh