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Captive Audience 

The Prison Arts Project helps local inmates present a mesmerizing Hamlet

"Denmark's a prison," Hamlet exclaims when his school chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come to visit. But last week, behind the stark guard towers and barbed-wire fences of the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, the medium-security state prison near Six Flags in Pacific, the situation was reversed: The prison became Denmark.

The invited audience did not hear Hamlet compare his home turf to a world of "confines, wards and dungeons," because that speech takes place in Act 2. Last week's production was limited to Act 4. Why only one act, you ask? Because this is no ordinary Hamlet. It's just one prong of the Prison Arts Project, a 12-year-old program that carries the arts into area jails and detention centers. The goal seems to be to expose inmates to the enriching sustenance live theater can provide. If last week's performance is any indication, the project is an astonishing success.

Under the umbrella of the Prison Arts Program, the Hamlet Project is a three-year program of workshops, rehearsals and text study (participating inmates receive credit at Fontbonne College) that periodically culminates in a one-act performance. Act 1 was staged in July 2000, Acts 2 and 3 in 2001. Last week was Act 4. Performing on a makeshift stage in a spacious, brightly lit rec room lined with soda machines, a cast of 28 actor/inmates (generously assisted by two local actresses as Gertrude and Ophelia) tackled the most difficult of Hamlet's five acts. "Tackled" is a fitting image here, for this group revealed itself to be as tightly disciplined, focused and motivated a unit as the St. Louis Rams.

Act 4 is a special challenge because it begins at fever pitch -- only moments earlier, Hamlet has killed Polonius -- and then, almost before the act has settled into its rhythm, Hamlet is gone. (Technically he's bound for England. More pragmatically, Shakespeare gave his title character time to catch his breath.) In his absence, the audience must endure pages of tedious exposition about how Claudius and Laertes plan to kill Hamlet on his return in Act 5.

Working in front of inmate Gary Rushing's gorgeously painted drop of a garden scene, the cast rose to the challenges of this complex act. Under the direction of Agnes Wilcox, the pace was brisk and the diction clear. As Claudius, Edgar Evans emanated a commanding presence, and first-time actor James E. Word Jr. was as compelling a Laertes as any amateur production of Hamlet could hope for.

The Prison Arts Hamlet uses four actors in the title role. There are lots of reasons to justify that directorial decision (e.g., the immense size of the part, the opportunity to allow more inmates to participate). Nevertheless, the first time you hear four actors divvying up Hamlet's speeches, the effect is slightly disconcerting. However -- and it's a giant "however" -- in the hands of four actors, Hamlet's soliloquy "How all occasions do inform against me" becomes the most fascinating part of the act. With four actors delivering the speech, the questions Hamlet asks of himself ("What is a man,/If his chief good and market/Be but to sleep and feed?") actually receive answers. As performed here, Hamlet is truly talking to himself, and a 400-year-old text is restored to freshness.

But it wasn't the performance alone that made the evening memorable; it was the total experience. After the act concluded, a 30-minute Q&A session provided catharsis for actors and audience alike. When you hear an inmate speak with probing insight about Hamlet's "intent," you know that someone is doing something right. Truth to tell, some of the questions were less informed than the answers. Of course, the overriding question went unasked: Why are you here? What chain of events brought a gifted artist such as Rushing to this correctional facility?

At the end of the Q&A session, Wilcox announced to the audience, "You now have 12 minutes to mix and mingle with the cast." Someone added a final comment, after which Wilcox looked at the clock and amended: "You now have 10 minutes." Most actors find release after a performance by going out after the play for a pizza or a beer. That ever-ticking clock on the wall reminded us that these actors were going nowhere. It was a sobering realization.

But there were moments of exhilaration as well. Any doubts as to the value of the Hamlet project were dispelled during the mix and mingle, when one inmate was heard to say, "This is the first time in my life anyone has ever applauded for me." The transforming sincerity of such a statement would humble Shakespeare himself.

Act 5 is scheduled for July. Try to be there.

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