Shakespeare High


The play's the thing.

The play’s the thing.

(2011) Documentary (Cinema Guild) Richard Dreyfuss, Val Kilmer, Kevin Spacey, Mare Winningham, Julian G. Simmons, Luis Cardenas, Sue Freitag, Marisa Gold, Michelle Sui, Melvin Emesibe, Galvin Emesibe. Directed by Alex Rotaru

The English language is an amazing thing. It can communicate so much, so eloquently. It is distressing that of late we have chosen to dumb it down and simplify it to a series of catch phrases and abbreviations so that the things we express can fit in a Twitter feed.

Respecting Shakespeare, perhaps the most accomplished practitioner of the English language there ever was, is not something that comes naturally to most high school students. Acting out Shakespeare’s timeless plays can be daunting as well.

The Drama Teachers Association of Southern California has put on a Shakespeare competition for more than 90 years now. Each year it chooses three different plays from the Bard; schools from the region then are invited to either condense the play into an eight minute scene, or perform a five-minute scene from the play. They can use no props other than four folding chairs. They are welcome to interpret the dialogue and action however they wish so long as it conforms to the basic meaning of the play, or simply perform it as is.

Fifty schools participated in this particular year, from schools for the wealthy and privileged to schools for the disadvantaged and poor. Among them is the Los Angeles High School for the Performing Arts whose students and teachers tend to prefer traditional presentations of Shakespeare. They tend to be dismissive of the other schools which is ironic because some of the other students seemed to have a deeper understanding of what Shakespeare was trying to get across than the snobs. I found that comforting, somehow.

Some of the stories of the kids who are involved here are downright heartbreaking. There are kids involved with gangs, kids dealing with personal tragedies, kids with hopes of becoming professional actors and kids who are just having a bit of a lark.

The documentary captures adequately how Shakespeare can change the lives of those exposed to him for the first time. What it doesn’t capture is what these kids thought of the plays they were performing. So involved do the filmmakers get in the competitive aspect of the competition that they forget the reason for it at times. I would have liked to have seen more details and fewer student portraits. It’s not that all of them didn’t deserve their 15 minutes, it’s just when a documentary tries to be all things to all people, it becomes so much more difficult to edit it down. I get the sense that Rotaru connected with the students so much that he lost some of his objectivity in terms of actually making the film.

This isn’t one of those life-changing documentaries that makes you aware of some aspect of life that you don’t focus on enough although I do think most of us could only benefit from a little bit more Shakespeare in our lives. It is however, interesting if not compelling in places and if you run across it in your browsing of things to watch and you happen to like documentaries, this isn’t a bad option.

WHY RENT THIS: Reminds us of how transformative Shakespeare can be. Some of the stories are compelling.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many stories. Could have used some judicious editing and more detail as to what the students thought and how they processed Shakespeare.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dreyfuss, Kilmer, Winningham and Spacey all appeared in previous competitions and Spacey executive produced this film. All four appear in the movie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Two schools that were cut from the finished film are shown here, as is a student from one of the schools that were included but whose story also didn’t make the final film. There are also three complete festival performances including one from the winning school.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

SITES TO SEE: Netflix DVD, Amazon (rent/buy), iTunes

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Caesar Must Die

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

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