In a key scene in Hank Rogerson's documentary, Shakespeare Behind Bars, play director Curt Tofteland pauses rehearsal to dwell on a line from Shakespeare's The Tempest: "The rarer action is virtue than vengeance." At Kentucky's Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, this sentence can be seen as commentary on actions the inmates have taken to arrive at their station in life. But in the context of Rogerson's film, it's also something more: a message to the audience that hating these prisoners will always be easier than trying to reach out to them.

Bars chronicles a group of prison inmates who have been putting on Shakespeare productions since 1995, with Tofteland at the helm. They rehearse two days a week for nine months, sometimes in what appears to be a janitor's closet, and at the end, they present a fully realized theatrical production to an audience of family and fellow inmates. It's not Broadway, but it's something, and as Tofteland emphasizes again and again, the point is not the product, but the process.

As they passionately rehearse classic dramatic roles, men like Hal, a homosexual who dropped a hair dryer in his wife's bathwater, and Leonard, who in his own words, "sexually molested seven girls," find powerful connections between Shakespeare's words and their own lives. Bars is about the transformative and therapeutic properties of theater: It never asks us to forgive the cast of The Tempest for their crimes (and there are some doozies), nor does it pass any judgments itself. Rather, Rogerson's film chronicles the positive changes that happen in a group of criminals who have been treated as equals and not villains, both personally and artistically. In a "correctional system" that rarely does any correcting, Tofteland allows convicts not just to express themselves in a constructive manner, but to better understand their own experiences by seeing them mirrored in someone else's beautiful language. The ability of the men in Bars to candidly articulate their own experience is staggering, and there can be no doubt that interpreting Shakespeare has helped them come to it. Tofteland is a hero for doing what he does, and Rogerson is a hero for capturing it, humanizing a group of people who are all too frequently depicted as monsters.