Thanks to Jamie at Maryland Shakespeare for the heads up about Montgomery College’s WILLPOWER festival this week. Our community college puts on an annual celebration that includes a number of lectures and workshops about the Bard and his work. This weekend, Willpower culminated in several performances of The Tempest at the Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center on the Rockville campus.
I am so glad I was able to attend this evening’s show. It was wonderfully magical and very well done. I really enjoyed the magical atmosphere — the beautiful set and creative lighting and staging.
The scene has shifted a bit eastward from Shakespeare’s big storm. We’re on an island in the Bay of Bengal, and Prospero is the rightful Duke of Madras, while Alonso is the King of Nepal. The set is a magical jungle of huge banyan trees and vines.
I really enjoyed the Indian theme. Ariel is transformed into sort of a Greek chorus/dance ensemble played by five actors who step up perfectly in height, with each about 3″ taller than the next. The play begins with the actors stacked so that they resemble a Hindu god with multiple arms. They do a Bollywood-style line dance during Miranda and Ferdinand’s wedding. I enjoyed this rendition of Ariel throughout the play.
The costumes are beautiful, the student actors do a great job. This is well worth the 10 bucks it sets you back and I was a bit disappointed that the theater wasn’t anywhere near filled on a Saturday night. There is still one more performance of the show on Sunday, April 17 at 2 PM. If you’re in the DC area, I highly recommend that you make your way round the beltway tomorrow and experience this brave new world in Rockville.
The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance.
(The Tempest, V.i.27-28)
Shakespeare Behind Bars is a documentary about Curt Tofteland’s work with inmates at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Kentucky. He worked with groups of about 20-25 inmates each year to produce one of Shakespeare’s plays. The film focuses on the group’s practices during 2002, culminating in their 2003 production of The Tempest.
It’s amazing. I can’t get over how touched I am by this film. It is very complex emotionally. I felt like I really got to know some of the inmates involved. The film follows them as they discuss and rehearse the play, but it also takes time to let several of the inmates speak about themselves and their crimes and their time in prison.
T-I-M-E. The film gives you a glimpse into prison life. What I find most upsetting is the T-I-M-E involved. For me, and most people around me, there are not enough hours in the day to do everything we need and want to do. These men are serving long sentences and they have nothing but T-I-M-E on their hands. I found this a bit overwhelming to really consider. A man in his 20s, in prison on two life sentences with no possibility of parole, and he has nothing, absolutely nothing, but T-I-M-E on his hands. For the rest of his life.
Enter Curt Tofteland who volunteers his time to teach these men about Shakespeare (actually the warden speaks about the many educational programs at this institution and how his mission is to train the inmates to return to society, so I am sure this is just one of many worthwhile programs available to them). Tofteland is a mentor to these men who are sorely in need of mentoring. Tofteland says about Shakespeare, “He never ceases to teach me. He’s my mentor. His gift truly was insight into human behavior that is as true now as it was 400 years ago.”
You can feel the inmates coming to grips with the truths they find speaking through their characters as they work on the play. An inmate named Red was given the part of Miranda, and at first was quite upset about it, but as he got into the part, he realized there was a lot Miranda had to say to him personally. It seemed almost uncanny, karma, that he got this part that spoke so clearly to him and his own issues. He says, “Miranda helped me to deal with some of the things that was inside of me that needed to be developed, needed to come out.”
Sammie (who plays Trinculo), appears in the film as a sweet and thoughtful man, a hard worker, and someone you wouldn’t mind as a neighbor or co-worker. It’s hard to mesh that image with his description of his crime: he had already been in and out of prison twice and then he strangled his girlfriend in a fit of rage when she was threatening to expose their affair to his wife. You see, I say complex emotions. These are men who have done horrible things. Sammie admits tearfully that it is difficult for him to forgive himself, and find any goodness in himself knowing what he did.
Another inmate, Hal (he plays the part of Prospero), killed his pregnant wife by drawing her a bath, dropping a hairdryer into the water, and then making it look like an accident. He had much to get out of this play about forgiveness. He said, “Self-forgiveness doesn’t seem to be enough. It’s kind of hollow. I try to find deeper meaning in my life. This can’t be it. This can’t be what my life is all about and what my actions have caused.”
Tofteland says that these men have already been judged and sentenced by society, so he doesn’t feel the need to judge them himself. He simply goes in and works with them. The heart and soul that they put into their practice and their performance is amazing. This is a film that’s well worth watching.
I found out about it because Tofteland will be speaking at an event sponsored by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company at 7:30 PM on April 1 at Oliver’s Carriage House in Columbia, Maryland. If you are in the DC/Baltimore area and you can get in (space is very limited) you may want to catch this. The film is available on Netflix.
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