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You could close your eyes and not miss a thing. Ariel’s plucky trill, Stephano and Trinculo’s sloshy bluster, Caliban’s rough petulance — the intricate language of them all rises from behind music stands, with no set, no loincloths or fairy accouterments, no trapdoors. The focus is on the words of Harlan Baker’s Prospero, Debby Paley’s Ariel, Karen Ball’s Miranda, and the rest of the gang in the eye of Shakespeare’s classic comic storm. The late masterpiece The Tempest contains some of the scurviest banter and loveliest consolations in the English language, and in the Naked Shakespeare Ensemble’s Nov. 28th reading, it was those words —not spectacles of scenery or garb — that claimed the spotlight.
This one-night-only reading of The Tempest was the latest offering of the Naked Shakespeare Ensemble, a corps of some of Portland’s most ubiquitous actors, all devoted to stripping the Bard’s work down to its fine and shapely textual sinews. Directed by Michael Howard and Michael Levine, under the auspices of their Acorn Productions, Naked Shakespeare seeks to bring the Bard’s sublime and ribald verbiage to the fore and to unexpected places.
Among the lyric denuders in Howard and Levine’s crew are active performers who have fingers and limbs in all of the major theater operations around. This is certainly not lost on directors Howard and Levine, who work hard to make Naked Shakespeare a feasible and rewarding commitment for actors with oodles of other projects on their hands. Naked Shakespeare is an actor-centered training group first and foremost, says Levine, designed to serve actors for whom grappling with these texts and bringing them to audiences is a labor of love.
There’s a lot of flux in the forms of performance the group takes on. Since its inception, in the aftermath of 2004's Spring Point production of Twelfth Night (the cast of which became the ensemble’s core), Naked Shakespeare has done a fair amount of shift-shaping. From weekly workshops, they moved to a well-received "scene night" at SPACE in November of 2004, during which actors milled about casually with the audience and delivered their lines spontaneously from the floor and up on chairs. This scene night became a model of the kind of "environmental" or site-specific staging that Naked hopes to adapt to any venue, to engage the audience with a more visceral and immediate experience of Shakespeare’s words, and to make his great blank verse and timeless themes into something more like a conversation easily conducted over a couple PBRs.
This past spring, Naked tried some more fully produced shows, putting up an all-female Juliet and Romeo and a culling of the Richard plays, expertly stitched together as The Life and Times of Falstaff. But since then, the group is trying to stick primarily with pieces that can be used in repertory, like sonnets and soliloquies that can be easily brushed off and revived with little rehearsal time, so as to maintain a working body of performable texts. To that end, this summer and fall found Naked holding down a monthly gig at the former Meritage, where actors mingled with the wine-quaffers to deliver monologues. And in what was perhaps their most intrepid site-specific performance to date, Naked thespians braved stormy Casco Bay last month to splash knee-deep in the mud and puddles around Battery Steele, as part of the entertainment in the Sacred and Profane, on Peak’s Island.
Naked Shakespeare’s new year will deliver a series of chances for you to discover or rediscover the words of the Bard up close and personal. On January 23, 2006, St. Lawrence hosts a reading of Julius Caesar, and sometime during the Ides of March, Naked will perform a scene night at SPACE focused on Shakespeare’s treatment of the corruption of power. May 1 brings a lighter breath, in a reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at St. Lawrence.
Like the Nov. 28th simple reading of The Tempest, Naked’s upcoming gigs offer opportunities to revel in Shakespeare’s astoundingly graceful phrasing, his acute read of the human condition. With no gratuitous spectacles or impenetrable accents to get in the way, Naked aims at making Shakespeare’s words our own, a language we can know with our eyes closed.
The Naked Shakespeare Ensemble includes Keith Anctil, Harlan Baker, Karen Ball, Paul Drinan, Ariel Francoeur, Maggie Gish, Patience Goodwin, Paul Haley, Michael Howard, Michael Levine, Richard O’Brien, Debby Paley, Randal Tuttle, Sue Yandell | www.acorn-productions.org
Megan Grumbling can be reached at email@example.com
Issue Date: December 2 - 8, 2005
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