High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

We'll Leave the Porchlight on

So the Porchlight Theatre in Chicago is currently mounting a production of Norman and Simon's musical version of The Secret Garden. A few years ago, M's Cana!dad was in a production of it as Dr. Neville Craven. I pondered it for a moment and came to the conclusion that it was probably not Ms kind of musical, adding, "But he does get to slap a child."

M has soprano problems, and soprano lines are thick on the ground in TSG. We both have moppet problems, and TSG has two. Nonetheless, it works for me. It's not my favorite musical ever, but I do enjoy it.

I'd seen a relatively big production of it at the Auditorium Theatre several years ago, and I was interested to see what Porchlight would make of it, as they've been inching their way towards "not so little" company for a while now. The fact that they were staging at the creatively named Theatre Building (right next door to the place at which we saw Mexican Wrestling Macbeth), rather than at some teeny tiny hole in the wall theatre was an intriguing sign. (Not a slam on hole-in-the-wall-theatres, which I love, but this is an interesting move for a company that I've been watching for years.)

If I REALLY insisted on the point, M would've gone with me, or I could've gone alone. However, my niece is about to turn 12 and one cannot begin the suburban subversion too early. I asked my sister to ask her if she wanted to catch a matinee, we decided on a day that would fit her schedule (yes, my niece's dayplanner is so packed that I have to talk to "her people"), and we came up with last Sunday.

I drove out to Arlington Heights, arriving at the homestead around noonish (after learning why one really does NOT want to exit the Kennedy and take Arlington Heights Road all the way up to them). I met their "dog" (a majestic, 3-lb, shih tzu-king charles spaniel mix [they can't let him out in the yard alone because of the coyotes {and they might have a raccoon under their deck, which presumably might eat him up and never know}]), stayed out of a fight about flip flops vs. sparkly backless shoes (I did lobby for tights, but I went unheeded), and we were off. Sitting in traffic with an almost-12-year-old is something at which I'm out of practice. It had its trying moments, but it was kind of neat, too.

Example of trying moment: C (niece) is telling me about seeing Amish people (probably Menonites, really) at Silver Dollar City (Uh, I've already disclosed that my parents summer home is a double-wide in Blue Eye "Just Steps from Branson!", MO, right?). Down with her comprehensive ignorance in a way I imagine she won't be in a few months, she asked, "They had cellphones and Nikes, but weird bonnets and other clothes. What's up with that?" I explained that the Amish and Menonites (to a lesser extent) avoided the use of technology, because they liked the idea of communities of people who all depend on each other for everything.

She then persisted, "But what ARE they?" I think she didn't appreciate my "Kingdom: Animalia; Phylum: Chordata . . ." etc. answer, but it did get her clarify: "Are they a religion? Are they Christian?" So I explained that yes, they were Christian sects that originally split from others because, among other things, they were pacificists and didn't believe in infant baptism. C has this strange conversational quirk: She will sometimes reflexively ask "What's that mean?" while staring off into space. I don't know if it's ADD related or what, but it can be kind of a drag. So I said, "You know what it means?" Her attention visibly shifted back to the conversation, she looked slightly embarassed, and said, "Well, I forgot." So I asked what an infant was, and she said, "OH!" At the very least, she learned a valuable lesson about never asking Carter or an athropologist, "What's up with that?"

Other topics of conversation on the drive ranged from Old Navy vs. Abercrombie (which, she disdainfully informed me, was NOT the same as Abercrombie & Fitch, because it's FOR KIDS) to immigration ("But that's stupid. Papa's (her great grandfather) an immigrant.") to Rent.

We arrived on Belmont and found a metered space in front of a Tattoo parlor. I jokingly suggested we get her a tattoo, to which she said, "Ew." Thinking for a minute, she leaned in close and asked if I had any tattoos. I said I didn't and told her the heart-warming story about how Uncle J came home one fine Mother's Day morning with his tattoo. (This is not to be confused with the Mother's Day morning when Uncle J came home having totalled his car somehow. He could not enlighten us as to how for reasons that are depressingly ovbious.)

She then looked around carefully before whispering, "Do you have any . . . BODY PIERCINGS?" Again, I was forced to reveal my squareness and admit that, no, other than my ears, I am piercing free. She then wrinkled her little face and informed me that her friend liked a band and one of the guys had his NIPPLE pierced. I refrained from sharing any funny nipple piercing stories with her, though.

Of course, this entire conversation is taking place against the backdrop of Belmont and Sheffield, the piercing, tattooing, body modifying, PVC-clothing-wearing, gothic identity capital of Chicago. I'll grant you, most of the usual denizens are not yet out and about at 2 PM on a Sunday, and many of them were probably off visiting mom, but C's STAGE WHISPER had the potential for comedy.

As we walked down to pick up our tickets, she slipped her hand into mine and said, "I feel weird today. I feel like holding your hand." I'll hold on to that memory until she's 21 or so and might feel like doing that again. After getting our tickets, we still had half an hour until the doors opened, so we trotted over to Bittwersweet for a snack. The girl had 2 scoops of vanilla with hot fudge and caramel (quite possibly this was contraband, but what are aunts for?), I opted for potato-asparagus soup (I'd had nothing but a granola bar yet). During this time, another of her quirks revealed itself. Every 6 seconds or so, she asked, "Do we have time? Do we have time? I like to be early." What a refreshing change from your MOTHER who has been late for everything for the last 42 years, my dear.

Just as we were leaving Bittersweet, there was a regrettable influx of what appeared to be Cubs fans. 2:40ish is a little early for a game to be over. I sure hope they didn't miss the Cubs completely blowing it in the 9th, 'cause that gives me a happy. Anyway, influx of yuppies complicated our exit somewhat, and we did end up being later to the theatre than I would have liked (especially since 7 million women had decided to drop by to use the theater's 3-stall bathroom).

It was general admission, and I really hadn't anticipated it being as full as it was. However, there was some group of like 35 children, most Japanese and Indian, that had reserved a big section of seats (the place probably seats 120 or so). We wound up in the front row slightly to stage left. It wouldn't have been my first choice, but C has front-row lust, so it worked out fine, except for the jackass in the magenta ultrasuede blazer (I couldn't have made that up if I tried) who kept trying to move people so that he would NOT HAVE TO SIT WITH THE CHILDREN HE CAME WITH. Fucker.

The director (and artistic director of the company) came out to pimp the company, their next season (they're doing Assassins, and yet he went on about how Ragtime will be the biggest challenged they've faced. HA!), and to introduce the play. That means it's time for me to spend an inordinate number of electrons talking about the staging.

The space they were using (the Theatre Building has several) is a mid-sized black box theatre (tiers of seats descending to the floor, in front of that, a very slightly raised sqare stage), but they were using it in pretty typical proscenium fashion, which is about all the size would allow. In constructing their proscenium, they'd taken a leaf (HA!, 'cause see, it's like a garden theme) from the production of Into the Woods that I saw at UIUC in '03. Basically, they'd cut a proscenium with an irregular outline out of plywood, then punched out irregular shapes in that, filled it in with a translucent material and projected shifting natural colors of light through it, giving the impression that all of the action was taking place within a metaphorical (often quite jungly [not Jungian {necessarily}]) garden.

The actors entered from a catwalk downstage left and, apparently, the musicians were seated nearby. This made for some sound problems as we were right in front of the band and anyone who was facing toward stage right was often inaudible to us. I'm not sure they had too many options with their space limitations, but the acoustics of the production were uneven at best.

The whole stage was maybe 12-feet deep, so the set designers (Richard and Jacqueline Penrod) had their work cut out for them. I'm happy to say they rose to the occasion. Leaving about 60×0f the downstage area free for action, they constructed two arcs (actually, there may have been three, total, it was a bit difficult to see from our off-center position), one upstage of the other, extending nearly from "wing to wing" (in so far as their were any wings at all. Each of these had three or four archways cut into it, and the openings were offset from one another, which gave the stage much more of a feeling of depth than it really had. The downstage-most archways were filled in with a gauzy material and frequently chorus members would stand behind them, turning themselves into the creepy, looming portraits inside Misselthwaite Manor. The set of arches upstage from this were filled in with mossy material that could either be lit to highlight the texture and give it an outdoorsy feel or could be made to look like the flat, crumbling interior of the manor. Loved it, although the strings of flowers hanging within the upstage arches at the end might've been too understated.

Two low, moveable benches at stage left and right were semi-permanent features that gave the actors the opportunity to convey movement over a landscape, or to vent some of the legendary Yorkshire manic energy in the case of Dickon and Martha. When necessary, small beds were rolled on and offstage, for Mary in the opening scene and obviously for Colin for much of the show. The only bitchy commentary I'd make on set dressing is to note that Colin's bile-green bed linens certainly conveyed the feeling of a sick room.

The costumes were pretty great as well. Mary progresses through a series of floral-patterned dresses that range from shockingly fake-looking Victorian up through a much prettier, more natural green and pink ensemble by the end. Martha's rich russet-toned, tea-length gown was a better choice than sticking to traditional servant black and white. The Ayah's costumes were astoundingly beautiful (and so was Anjali Asokan, who played her, for that matter), if probably not quite in period.

It's just possible that Nicholas Saubers (the designer) ever-so-slightly lost his shit when costuming Nicholas Foster, who played Neville, but I think we can forgive him. Tragically, I can find no pictures of his ankle-length, pin-striped Count Dracula smoking jacket, complete with giant sateen French cuffs and a stand-up collar. Seriously, that jacket was DOPE. And given that Foster is tall, whip-thin, and ever-so-slightly-Sting-circa-The-Bride-like, who could resist? Not I, that's for damned sure. The real problem is that this costume makes it look as though Neville is always lounging around, one bon bon away from needing a marabou bed jacket, whereas Archibald is looking like he might drop by the PAN American EXposition in Buffalooooo. In Buffallloooo.

The only other eyebrow I raised at costuming was for Lily. I was totally on board with going cream silk. Bethany Lindner (the actress) is beautifully fair, and the blonde wig (I assume it was a wig, or at least a piece added in) was perfect (a relief given how up close and personal we were). But I must ask what the hell was going on with her hips. Have a look at those triple Ds on Amounet's head and now imagine those bra cups increased about 3-fold, transformed into puffy cream silk, and tacked on to the hips of a very slight woman. I don't know if the problem was that Elizabeth Haley, who played Lily's sister Rose, was much more naturally buxom and bonny and didn't need any lateral bustle help, or what, but Lily's pontoons were almost enough to distract me from Lindner's performance. Almost.

One of the reasons I was fairly determined to see this production was the fact that the cast was getting universally glowing reviews. It's particularly tricky with youngsters as leads, so given that even the reader had good things to say, I wanted to see this for myself. I agree about 95% with those reviews.

I'll start with the Lindners, Bethany and Michael (Lily and Archibald [respectively, for those of you who might like to gender challenge your children early]). What a bonus that these two are married in real life and happen to be so damned talented. The number of times I unexpectedly teared up at their scenes together is enhanced by the knowledge that, by this point in the production, they must really hate each other to the point of wanting to grind glass in one another's faces. Such is the way of theatre, and yet such professionalism and believability. In all seriousness, Bethany's voice was tailor-made for Lily and she made a difficult, quite operatic role look easy, which has to have been a nightmare in such a small space. Michael seems to have had to work harder to exercise his range, but he managed it beautifully. Any flaws in his singing were more than compensated for by the emotion he brought to the role. Archibald can be a bit . . . well . . . low-rent Rochester-y, but Lindner brought just enough sarcasm that it made him much more believable.

Neville is another role that can easily go all Snidely Whiplash (especially in that pimped out coat [have I mentioned my mad hot love for the pimped out coat?]). Foster seems to have conquered that instinct by going a little more passionately mad than I've seen before. That's a touch of a problem at the (frankly, way-too-pat) denoument, when it's implied that Neville just needs to get a life, rather than "Neville done gone crazy for his brother's wife," but it's such an interesting choice for so much of the play, I'm not knocking it. His voice was also not what I'm accustomed to for Neville (Richard Westerberg, who is also Cinderella's prince on the Broadway cast of Into the Woods, is Neville on my recording, and he has a giant, resonant voice), but other than some difficulty containing jerky body movements during Lily's Eyes, I'm noting it as a difference, not a downgrade.

One thing that surprised me in seeing the show again is how small Martha's role actually is. Of course, she has two big numbers that are, in the words of Anya "Break-away pop hits," so when listening to the soundtrack, she appears pretty focal. There's also the fact that my friend D, the perky fluteplayer, once played Martha, so I think of the character especially fondly. But really, she's not around much. That's a shame because Angela Ingersoll was quite charming (although also quite wee, a bit of a problem given the 17-year-old comparative giantess playing Mary) in the role, despite some difficulty with the thankless Yorkshire accent.

I was a big, big fan of Luke Mills as Dickon. I seem to recall in the book that Mary and Dickon are much more of an age (I mean she's supposed to be 11ish and he's supposed to be maybe 14 or 15?). In the musical, Dickon is, no doubt about it, an adult (he's sung by John Cameron Mitchell of Hedwig and the Angry Inch on the soundtrack). That can get creepy in a hurry. Mills has a kind of slightly crazed youthfulness that works, though, and he had excellent rapport with his Mary. Add to this the fact that he had the physicality and vocal chops for the role and you've got something approaching the Platonic ideal of Dickon-ness.

Jim Sherman's Ben was slower and more arthritic, and less the spry, cranky man I've come to expect. However, he played the comedy well with Mary and once again alleviated the sheer gothic horror of Misselthwaite. Too much gothic horror and one begins to wonder why Mary doesn't see the moors as a viable alternative. Here, given Gabrielle Brite's fantastically scary Mrs. Medlock, a lighter Ben worked well.

Elizabeth Haley as Rose had a great voice, but her innately haughty look and her avoidance of Mary might have been a touch overplayed. That may be less an objectively problematic set of choices on her part than it was trouble in contrast to Stan Wash's Albert. Wash is golden haired, angelic, and exudes such tenderness for Mary that Haley's interpretation of Rose looks much harsher and more calculated, rather than the character being a somewhat immature socialite, which is what I think is intended.

Abigail Traube and Brandon Zale (good to see our Czolgosz from the Boxer Rebellion's production of Assassins, and much improved on the acting front) worked extremely well with Wash, Haley, Asokan, and Bethany Lindner to form the all-important chorus. This show moves pretty constantly and without a chorus that can absolutely nail the (quite complex) transitions, it's going to be a long two hours. Likewise kudos to everyone for pulling off the near-constant waltzing without ever drawing attention to how little room they actually had to work with.

That leaves . . . the moppets.

First of all I have to share my amusemenet at the fact that Drew Mikusa (Colin), who probably stands at about 4'2" inches and might weigh in at 65 lbs after a hefty meal, has apparently played Big Jule in Guys & Dolls. Beyond that amusement, though, I've got nothing but praise for this kid. He was a terrific actor, he nailed the accent, and although I'm not usually a fan of the pre-pubescent-boy voice (see earlier musings on the counter-tenor approval rating scale), it will be a heartbreak when his changes. "Round-shouldered man" usually has me reaching for the skip button in a hurry, and I think I'd lost sight of the fact that there's something really touching in it among the treacle. Mikusa's rendition did a great deal to shift the pathos/bathos balance. He and Bethany Lindner were transcendant (groin-grabbingly so!) in "Lift Me Up/Come to My Garden."

But what about the main-freaking-character one or two of you may be wondering by now. First of all, I think Mallory Baysek is cheating more than actors usually do by using a headshot that's gotta be 6 or 7 years old. Other reviews peg her at 17, currently. I have no particular beef with keeping one's sanity by casting a kid who's a bit older and more mature for such a meaty role. Furthermore, Baysek has a fine voice (one that would be improved by a little less reliance on vibrato, but I think that's more a training problem than any technical shortfall).

However, I've got to say that I'm not on board with the glowing reviews of her acting. I have a feeling she's used to a much bigger house, but the house would've had to be 10 times the size of Porchlight's to justify the ritual abuse of facial expressions of which she is guilty. Yes, I know Mary is supposed to be pinched and yellow. I gave her a good chunk of the first act to show me that it was a choice, but she ran around looking like a cross between Munch's "The Scream" and a sharpei for the entire show. She was at a 15, facial-expression-wise, and we needed her at about 5. She was also a little far to the Haley Mills (and crrrrroooooown thy goooood with brrrrraaaaahhhtahhhhoood) end of the accent spectrum for my tastes. She wasn't irrevocably broken, but I do wonder what went on behind the scenes directorially speaking that this was what we ended up with.

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Bardsploitation, part 2

As I said in my last, I think the nonintrusive documentary approach to Shakespeare Behind bars was a great strength, but some of its byproducts can be viewed as problematic.

Hank Rogerson, who wrote and directed this, not only (wisely) did not want the documentary to be about him or about the problems of making such a documentary---he also clearly wanted it to be about the participants rather than about the program itself. In particular, Rogerson seemed to want to avoid the documentary being viewed as a paean to Curt Tofteland, the director, and the interview clips of him are limited. The question of Tofteland's feelings about the men's crimes (how he feels about the men themselves is richly evident in the rehearsals) is left until the end.

It probably goes without saying that the choice to deemphasize Tofteland makes the documentary a braver and more interesting one than it would have been otherwise. (Not that I don't think Tofteland has an interesting story to tell, but it has the potential to go all Lord Jim, doesn't it?) However, having seen it with M, who hadn't read the CSM article, I got the sense that information about the program itself might've been too minimal. I think maybe the tradeoff was a necessary one: Too much exposition about the whys and hows of the program would break the fourth wall, as it were.

Just as the audience only gets the outlines of the program sketched for them, the documentary provides little information about Luther Luckett itself. Most of what we learn about it is conveyed through interviews with Larry Chandler, the warden, and most of these are concentrated at the beginning. Like most American prisons, we learn, Luther Luckett houses more than twice the number of inmates for which it was built. Unlike others, though, (and this point is made more clearly in the CSM article), Luther Luckett, under Chandler's leadership, is at least philosophically meant to be a place for rehabilitation rather than purely for punishment, and maintains a strong focus on various types of education to achieve that.

As with Tofteland, though, Rogerson avoids making the documentary about Chandler and maintains a careful balance in how he comes across on camera. The word for him that seems to have leapt to both my mind and the ZK's is "pragmatic." Both in the documentary and in the CSM article, Chandler states his philosophy about prison: The day inmates walk in, we start preparing them for the day they leave. Far from making Chandler seem like some soft touch in an increasingly cruel system, Rogerson includes a few interactions with the inmates. In these Chandler is tough and maintains his distance. He is the friend of no one on the yard, and he makes it clear that he and everyone else on staff are watching the inmates at all times, and the penalties for infractions, big and small, are harsh and uncompromising.

As for the inmates, there are two who remain focal throughout the documentary, and five or six highlighted at various times. The two focal points are Sammy and Hal. It's tempting to see the focus on Hal as a weakness and/or an easy way out for the documentary crew: He's white, presentable, articulate, and clearly loves both the camera and the interview process. He is, in other words, a wet dream of an ethnographic informant. Choosing to focus on someone so palatable to the audience could be viewed as a cynical move, but Hal is also a perfect foil for Sammie in good old Shakespearean fashion.

Sammie is also pretty "presentable" in the grand scheme of things. He's every inch the leader that Hal is (and as the production unfolds, it's clear that whereas Hal grates on and alienates some of the others, Sammie is universally liked and resepected). But first of all, he's black (biracial---mexican and black, actually). He speaks openly and honestly, but he also halts and fumbles, sometimes using the wrong word, other times groping for something and trailing off.

Whereas Hal often appears to be "spinning" himself and his experiences, Sammie wears his heart on his sleeve. Thus, Sammie's crime is revealed early on and his narrative of it (he strangled his lover in a fit of rage) probably meets people's expectations of why a black man would end up in prison. In contrast, we spend a lot of time with Hal before he reveals that he electrocuted his pregnant wife and made it look like an accident. (As an aside, he mentions that people bought this for 10 years, but there's no information on how the murder came to light.) I should point out that Rogerson's touch is so light that there is no implication that a "reveal" is being forced on the audience about what either Sammie or Hal has done. Their stories of alcoholism and sexual abuse (Sammie) and repression and denial (Hal) are given as much, if not more weight, in terms of telling us who these men are than are their crimes.

The lone exception of the "no heavy-handed reveals" rule is Leonard's story. At the outset, it seems as if Leonard is the more staid, less flamboyant counterpart to Hal. He is more quietly intellectual and more likely to deconstruct the plays in his interviews than he is to talk about himself. Early on, he mentions that one of the challenges of their productions is the lack of stability in the facility's population. In the best of all possible worlds, actors flake out, drop out, disappear, or have to be replaced for various reasons related to their own too-tooness. At Luther Luckett, they have to contend with transfers, injuries, and stints in solitary.

Several segments later, more than halfway through the rehearsals, Leonard's interviews take place at a table outside the solitary confinement cells and Leonard wears cuffs throughout. There is no explanation for this given that the outset of the interview. Even accounting for the new setting, Leonard is not himself. Whereas in previous interviews, he is fixated on Prospero's forgiveness of Antonio as theme that generally resonates with inmates, he uncharacteristically personalizes his thoughts on redemption and his desire to be free to choose to do the right thing. He is also visibly shaken with emotion and much less articulate than usual as a result. For the first and only time, we hear the interviewer ask "Why are you here?" More than a minute passes before Leonard answers---he closes his eyes against tears, his throat visibly constricts, for a moment it is unclear whether he might break down in tears or fly into rage. When he finally opens his eyes again, he says, "I sexually abused seven girls."

From there, the camera continues to follow Leonard for a few minutes as he's taken back to his cell. He dazedly flips through his books and notes on the play and talks in a disjointed way about continuing with the play. Meanwhile, there are shouts back and forth among the other occupants of the cells about him being a child molestor. Interspersed are brief clips of "our" inmates, still on the yard, who have only heard rumors about what might've landed Leonard in solitary---he had something he shouldn't on his computer; Sammie declares that Leonard is not the type to screw up on purpose. Shortly thereafter, Leonard is transferred to a maximum security prison, realizing the worst fears of his friends. I started the previous paragraph using the term "heavy handed," but I don't mean to imply that this was. Its timing and departure from the other conventions of the documentary are pointed, but the emotion is too raw and powerful to feel that it's simple manipulation on Rogerson's part.

Leonard's part is transferred to a very young, white inmate named Ricky. He is, on the one hand, more obviously and vocally bitter about his sentence, on the other, it is obvious that he has a tremendous passion for participating in the plays that is incongruous with his looks, mannerisms, and speech. He is every inch the redneck punk and the transformations he goes through in the rehearsals are breathtaking.

His story is unusual within the documentary in being more "on the nose" about what the audience can take away from it. Ricky admits that when he first arrived in prison, he was following a well-trodden path: Carrying drugs, building a reputation as a bad ass, and getting deeper and deeper into cycle. He makes an interesting distinction between being a "convict" and being and "inmate." Interspersed with Ricky's story is that of "Big G," who admits that the easiest "mentors" to find in prison are those who can take the most small-time thug and turn him into a big time bastard. He relates to Ricky on that level and shares his hopes and Sammie's that by getting him involved in the plays, they can show him that there's another way to be.

Unfortunately for Ricky, Antonio seems to be the name one dare not speak in prison Shakespeare. When the camera makes its way through the corridors of solitary a second time, there was little doubt in my mind that the owner of the anonymous hands shoved through the slot, awaiting cuffs, would be Ricky. During the interview, he slumps against the wall, a good deal more the thug than the undercover Shakespeare nerd of earlier. The revelation that he got dumped in the hole for getting tattoos was still a gut punch, though, considering the previous trip to solitary.

Although the men's stories as told in interviews are the focus, the documentary does not lose sight of the fact that the Shakespeare program and the production of The Tempest are the unifying themes of the project. Again with the skillful editing, the segments flow easily and flawlessly from interview to rehearsal and back.

Tofteland's approach to the productions is interesting in several ways. In the first place, he allows the men to "choose" their roles, meaning that the group really decides by rough consensus who will play what. We get a glimpse that Hal, the attention whore, will garner resentment down the line when Tofteland asks who will play Prospero and more than half the group jokingly stands, leaving Hal to delcare himself the "Real Prospero." The CSM article underscores the fact that it was Hal who was the first to volunteer to play a female character in a production, a move that could have dangerously highlighted his open homosexuality.

In The Tempest, Miranda is being somewhat reluctantly played by Red, a young black inmate who uncomfortably feels like 1920s-era comic relief at times. He seems consistently not to "get" things, and yet he is constantly smiling, clowning, as though he's anxious to ingratiate himself with everyone from the other players to the documentarians. The fact that he's slightly offputting makes the scene in which he finally connects his own experiences with Miranda's all the more disarming and effective, as is his later admission that he is bisexual.

Direction-wise, Tofteland is demanding. In one scene in an early rehearsal, Sammie is delivering the St. Crispin's day speech as Tofteland repeatedly urges him on by shouting that no one would follow him anywhere. In another, he gently backs Big G down from an over-the-top Caliban entrance, nodding and smiling as another actor comments that Caliban doesn't think of himself as a monster. Whenever possible, Tofteland's instinct seems to be to allow the direction to be a conversation among the actors.

That's not without its problems as we see late in the rehearsals when Hal offers advice to Ferdinand and Miranda once too often, leading to an in-rehearsal explosion and to-the-camera sniping behind Hal's back. But it's also not without its rewards. In the wake of the same incident, Hal sullenly declares that the actor playing Ferdinand (I think his name was Kurt, but I'm not certain) has a chip on his shoulder, and this is more of the "same old shit" (and I thought, "Ah ha, the midpoint breakdown, how well I know it!"). In the next breath, though, he admits that he's frustrated with the cast, with the production, but most of all with himself because he can't get beyond playing Prospero, "From here up," he says gesturing from his collar bone to the top of his head. For the first time, Hal really breaks down (it's worth noting that he is pretty thoroughly collected and distanced when detailing his crime), saying that he's lived for 46 years with a clamp on his heart and emotions and doesn't know how to let it go.

In looking at the CSM article again, one of the genuine gaps that I see in the documentary is that in seeking to---well deemphasize is the wrong word---in seeking to note make these men all about their crimes, the piece doesn't convey some of the diversity within the group and by extension within the prison at large. Of the men whose crimes we know, there are murderers and sex offenders, but as I click on the pictures from the Titus Andronicus cast, I see there are also nonviolent offenders, most notably Howard, who is serving a 30-year sentence for credit card crimes. Given that Howard being denied parole (all the more crushing because the initial rumor was that he'd made it) is a major point in the latter part of the documentary, I'm not sure I understand the omission (of course, it's always possible that I missed it and I'm talking out of my ass here).

Even aside from that specific case, though, I think the mixture of the types of crimes in the group would've been enlightening and deepened the audience's understanding of the group dynamics. For me as a theatre geek, I laughed and grimaced as I recognized the typical cast of personalities in any production. At the same time, the interviews, the prison itself, and even directorial devices (e.g., although expository text appears in a kind of Shakespeare folio font, information about the prisoners and their crimes appears in a stark, typewritten dog-tag-like font) constantly underscored that they are something apart. Yes, it's important that we see the actors' guarded, wary support for Leonard in contrast to the "well-known fact" that child molestors are in particular danger within the prison system. But I think the nonviolent crimes of some of the others is an equally important facet.

It's tricky coming up with words for the experience of this documentary. Saying that I "enjoyed" it sounds bizarre. I did enjoy it because it's skillfully made, it's in large part about the discovery process of theatre, which is something that excites and moves me to such a great extent thtat it constantly threatens to suck me back into that (NO NO NO!). And yet, I cried so much of the way through it: for the men, for their victims, for their stories and moments of clarity. It is profoundly moving.

But it left me feeling bleak and hollow, too, because I can all too easily see that, really, it's preaching to the choir. I can see crime hardliners pointing out that these people have computers and books and fresh air and food and goldangit, life. When the CSM article was published in 2001, 58f Americans felt that prison = punishment, not rehabilitation. I can't see that number having decreased in the interim. I don't see this documentary bridging that gap, and barring experiences like this guy's, I'm not sure what would.

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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Bardsploitation, part 1

This will probably be short (for me) and partial, as I have to get into the shower, get dressed, fetch a 12-year-old from the northwest hinterlands, head back down to the Belmont area and take in some musical theatre, but my brane has been working overtime since last night.

Last night, M and I headed downtown to see Shakespeare Behind Bars, a 2005 documentary shot almost exclusively at the Luther Luckett Medium Security Prison in LaGrange, KY. As the title suggests, the documentary focuses on a program begun in 1998 that involves producing a Shakespeare each year within the confines of the prison.

In 2001 the Christian Science Monitor did a pretty extended piece on the program that is worth reading. I skimmed it before we went to the theatre and it greatly enhanced my understanding and appreciation for the documentary.

A while ago my pal M mentioned that she appreciated a certain documentary (Og no remember which) because it evaded a trap into which documentary folks seem to be falling with greater and greater frequency. Namely, the documentary ends up being about the documentarian's search for the truth, difficulties making the film, etc., rather than actually being about the putative subject. Shakespeare Behind Bars most definitely avoids this as well. With one exception (that is made to great effect), we neither see nor hear the interviewers. There is not a second of narration, and explanatory text is minimal, increasing in frequency only later in the film. But overall, the men tell their stories and share their views on the program without intrusion.

Even so, the skill of the filmmakers is quite evident. It's edited beautifully. Often an inmate will offer a bit of insight on himself or others that will be accompanied visually by a snippet from a rehearsal or some other context that perfectly captures his epiphany or admission. The music is also minimal, but powerful, consisting primarily of cello and bass.

I want to ruminate more on the content (which is weighty and even more depressing than one might think) later, but for now it's worth noting that this is a really good film.

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