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'Macbeth' is brought to Jessup prison

The Baltimore Sun

Yesterday, William Shakespeare slipped into Jessup's Patuxent Institution.

The Bard made his way through the security gate, then traveled down several long halls of the red-brick, maximum-security prison, before stepping inside the cinderblock walls of a gym that would serve as a temporary Globe Theatre.

One of his most notorious characters trudged in behind him: Macbeth.

Patuxent inmates and their guests spent yesterday afternoon watching the schemes of the ambitious, murderous Scottish lord -- many for the first time -- as performed by the Ellicott City-based Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.

"It helps with the morale of the institution," Jarreau Newton, 30, an inmate at Patuxent for about 12 years, said of such events. The cultural opportunity gives inmates "something different to look at."

Warden John Wilt concurred. "It's an intellectual stimulation as well as a stimulation of imagination. ... There aren't an awful lot of recreational outlets for inmates in prison."

The audience of 300 or so ventured into the world of toil and trouble, horrible hags and bountiful bloodied daggers for charity as well as entertainment: The $5 admission would go to the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, to which inmates regularly contribute.

But unlike past doughnut sales and other efforts, yesterday's event was a first for the prison, whose population hovers around 800 inmates, said Judy West, executive assistant to the director.

The inmates' crimes run the gamut, including rape, homicide and drug-related offenses, said Mark Vernarelli, director of public information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

West said that inmates at Patuxent stay an average of 25 years.

Not all inmates were allowed to attend yesterday's show. Only those in Patuxent's youth and eligible-person programs, as well as some Division of Correction inmates, qualified, provided they had been infraction-free for a year, said Randall Nero, the institution's director.

Wilt, a Shakespeare aficionado, proposed the idea after seeing a sign for the Shakespeare company's forthcoming run of Macbeth. He had some experience bringing actors before inmates at another facility: In the 1980s, he had asked actors from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to perform A Midsummer Night's Dream at Brockbridge Correctional Facility, also in Jessup, Wilt said.

The Patuxent performance had launched "an awful lot of activity to study both the play and Shakespeare in general," he said.

Artist inmates designed posters -- which hung around the gym yesterday -- advertising the play. Extra copies of Macbeth were added to the library. One therapist read and discussed the story with the inmates in her group, Wilt said.

The troupe had to make its own adjustments for its prison debut, said Tami Moon, director of programming for Chesapeake. Real swords and daggers were replaced with wood and plastic, respectively, she said.

"It'd be great if this could encourage more groups to come in," Moon said.

The irony of Macbeth -- a blood-drenched story of greed and guilt -- being performed in a prison was not lost on inmates or institute officials.

"Most of what goes on in this play isn't, in some sense, unfamiliar to people here," Wilt said, adding that ambition, impatience and guilt probably weren't foreign concepts to the inmates. "It should resonate with more than a few."

"It's a play that existed for hundreds of years and, I think, captures the emotions that people deal with and cope with in life," Nero said.

Evoking such themes "might be a good thing, too," said Albert Tasker, 24, who has been at Patuxent for 7 1/2 years. "It might help people question their character."

And, on a practical level, Wilt added, as one of the Bard's more straightforward plays, Macbeth would likely be easier for Shakespeare novices to follow.

Several inmates said they enjoyed the afternoon theater.

"I would like to see it outside," to experience Macbeth without the inherent restrictions of a prison performance, Newton said.

Jamal Sells, 28, who sat between his mother and aunt as he watched the play, said he was intrigued by the story.

"It was cool," Sells said. "I might read the book now."

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