Presented by Shakespeare Behind Bars at the Luther Luekett Correctional Complex (Tom Dailey, Warden; Cookie Crewes, Interim Warden), LaGrange, Kentucky. May 16-20, 2004. Directed by Curt L. Tofteland. Costume design by Michelle Bombe. Props by Ted Thomas. Stage management by Tom Suleski, Siah Cornett, and Michael Jones. Sound effects by Mark Hourigan. With Floyd Vaughn (Caesar), Hal Cobb (Calpurnia, Portia), Sammie Byron (Brutus), DeMond Bush (Antony), Ron Brown (Cassius), Richard Hughes (Casca), Christopher Keeley (Octavius), Lonnie Clark (Lepidus), Anthony Silver (Artemidorus), Jerry Guenthner (Messala), Ryan Graham (Lucillius), Keath Bramblett (Volumnius), Roderick Blincoe (Claudio), Stephen Marshall (Titinius), Kenneth Stone (Cinna the Conspirator), Leonard Ford (Lucius), Howard Ralston (Carpenter), Michael Williams (Cinna the Poet), Jason Wheeler (Servant), and Marcel Herriford (Soothsayer).
When I told friends and colleagues that I was headed to a medium-security correctional complex in Kentucky to review the inmates' production of Julius Caesar, they were full of droll advice and anxious good wishes. "Don't tell Casca to break a leg; he might actually do it." "Let's hope Brutus steals the show instead of your purse." That sort of thing. Having never been to prison before, I wasn't sure what to expect. What I found during the four days I spent watching the rehearsals and performances and talking to the participants in the Shakespeare Behind Bars program was a hard-working and capable group, composed of gracious and intelligent individuals. I also witnessed some of the best theater on the planet.
One of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival's outreach programs, Shakespeare Behind Bars was founded in 1995 by Curt L. Tofteland, the Producing Artistic Director of both groups, and is the only secure-setting Shakespeare program in which full-length editions of the plays are performed by the inmates themselves. The program's extensive mission statement includes as its goals: to provide inmates with opportunities to take responsibility for their crimes; to encourage participants to develop positive self-images and the ability to trust; and to help members learn tolerance and empathy for other human beings. There are no auditions. Instead, the actors choose their roles--embarking on a negotiation process that can in itself be an exercise in interpersonal communication and conflict resolution--and they often lobby for parts that will challenge them to grapple with their pasts. The participants insist that Shakespeare Behind Bars is not just an acting company; the play is not the thing so much as the therapeutic and educational journey that they undertake.
Nevertheless, this production of Julius Caesar deserves to be acknowledged as a professional-quality piece of theater. The stage was set up as a rectangular arena with the audience seated on all four sides, an arrangement at once reminiscent of the Coliseum of ancient Rome and the boxing and political rings of today, and which was especially appropriate given that this production was interested in critiquing rituals of violence. Since props and scenery were at a minimum, the actors established their characters the old-fashioned way--through careful attention to Shakespeare's verse, and through costuming, in this case simple t-shirts which were color-coded according to each character's political loyalties: Pompey's supporters wore green; Caesar and his affiliates wore blue; the conspirators were in red, the plebeians in yellow, and the wordsmiths, Cicero and Cinna the Poet, in white. Any violence was stylized. Caesar's assassination was blocked in slow motion with a simple synthesized drumbeat in the background. Red fabric streamers stood in for blood, and when the conspirators emerged from having washed their hands in Caesar's wounds, they wore red gloves. Later, when Antony pretended to join their party, he allowed himself to be gloved by Brutus and Cassius before approaching each of the conspirators, placed at all four corners of the stage, and shaking his left hand. …