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Originally published Sunday, October 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Bard's genius slips through prison bars

The stage was a high-gloss tile floor and a couple of simple chairs. Security cameras adorned the ceiling and a prison guard's eyes roved the room. Deep inside Two Rivers Correctional Facility, an all-convict cast performed "Hamlet" for other prisoners.

Pendleton) East Oregonian

UMATILLA, Ore. — Hamlet gazed heavenward and began his soliloquy.

"To be or not to be, that is the question," he said. "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles ... "

The 25 or so men in the audience leaned forward in their chairs, absorbed in the Bard's words.

It was Shakespeare, all right, but with a twist. The actor's elegant prose sounded Shakespearean and his costume appeared authentic, but only from the waist up.

Below his black, gold-trimmed doublet, he wore blindingly white tennis shoes and bluejeans that bore the words "Oregon Department of Corrections Inmate" in eye-popping orange.

The stage was a high-gloss tile floor and a couple of simple chairs. Security cameras adorned the ceiling and a prison guard's eyes roved the room.

Deep inside Two Rivers Correctional Facility, an all-convict cast performed "Hamlet" for other prisoners.

Though this production will never go on the road, it did make history. The troupe is the first inmate group to perform Shakespeare in an Oregon state prison, according to Department of Corrections officials.

Johnny Stallings, the show's director, resembles Woody Allen, with crazy, do-its-own-thing hair, black high-top sneakers, glasses and a knack for inspiring his actors to dig down deep.

The Portland actor first came to the prison for a tour, then returned to do a one-man performance of Shakespeare's "King Lear." Before long, he volunteered to lead a weekly discussion group.

"They're just guys — they're not dangerous psycho-monsters," he said. "During our weekly dialogue group, we sit around talking about meaning-of-life stuff."

Six months ago, the inmates started rehearsing "Hamlet." His actors jumped in with enthusiasm.

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Stallings dealt with a few challenges he'd never faced in other productions. "Sometimes people would miss rehearsals because they were on segregation or suicide watch," he said.

But the biggest challenge, he said, was lack of experience.

Stallings abbreviated the play to about an hour and a half and broke the role of Hamlet into four sections.

"I wanted several guys to play the part — to get inside Hamlet's skin," Stallings said.

The Portland Opera Association loaned doublets, capes and other costume pieces.

The inmates practiced together once a week for six months. They worked on their lines in their cells and at their daily jobs. One actor recited lines as he sat at a sewing machine during the day. Another rehearsed as he mopped floors.

Josh Roberts, 32, played a priest in the production. He said the troupe wanted to give fellow inmates an escape from their grim routines.

"When you open a book, it takes you to another world — that's what we tried to do with Hamlet," he said. "It gave us a chance to bring beauty and a piece of culture into a negative space."

Jorey Brewis, who tops 6 feet and has long hair, played the two female roles — Ophelia and Queen Gertrude. Brewis resonated with Ophelia, who goes mad and dies, probably by her own hand. Brewis, who calls himself transgender, said he's struggled in prison and once tried to commit suicide.

The 28-year-old said that inmate audiences embraced the play. "We got a warm reception — some wanted to come back and see it again," he said.

The play got inmates to think outside the box, he said — a phrase that takes on an added meaning in prison.

"The prison seems like an island," he said. "But this [the play] is a boat to get off."

Prison Superintendent Don Mills praised the actors and said the experience will help the men be stronger individuals.

"Ninety-five percent of offenders will be coming back into our communities when their sentences are complete," he said. "It makes sense to send them back as more balanced, self-controlled and educated people so they can be successful in the community and not return to prison."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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