December 12, 2018
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Meet the new director of Maine’s only ‘naked’ theater company

Actors in Portland’s Naked Shakespeare Company don’t wear any costumes. But it’s not what you think. They don’t use sets or lights while performing the Bard’s works, either. The actors don’t even have a stage of their own.

Like theater guerrillas, they pop up in unlikely places such as bars and city parks. They stay just long enough to conjure up a crop of Shakespearean characters. Then, they sink back into the night, leaving bedazzled audiences wondering what just happened.

Since its inception in 2004, the company’s only had two constants: Shakespeare and founding director Michael Levine.

Now, Levine is bowing out and a new leader is entering stage left.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Michael Levine (left) plays a comic scene from Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well" with Stephanie Ross at Fore River Brewing in South Portland on Monday night.

Sarah Barlow will officially take over the company in August. Barlow has performed with it for more than five years and is planning on a few changes. But the company will remain dedicated to performing Shakespeare, off the stage and in your face.

Levine, an English teacher at Windham High School by day, said he’s entered a new graduate program and no longer has enough time to dedicate to Naked Shakespeare. Levine will continue to teach a long-running, weekly “intro to Shakespeare” acting class. Over the years, the class has served as a kind of farm team to the company. It turns ordinary actors into Shakespearean performers, able to translate the heady language into something conversational and understandable.

Since co-founding the company, Levine has shepherded it through performances in city squares, parks, bars, museums, churches, restaurants, abandoned military installations and, once, in front of the restrooms at an old mill.

Sometimes, the actors perform a whole play. But usually they create a mixtape of sonnets, soliloquies and greatest hits scenes. The audience is sometimes asked to help with the show and is always encouraged to react.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Josh Brassard leans over a table of customers at Fore River Brewing in South Portland on Monday night while performing a dramatic scene from Shakespeare's "Richard II." The show, put on by the Naked Shakespeare Company, featured six actors performing snippets, sonnets and soliloquies by the famous playwright.

Q: Why do you stage nude Shakespeare shows?

Levine: Well [long sigh] they’re technically not nude, other than the language.

Q: I know, but I had to ask.

Levine: We’re trying to present Shakespeare without the usual trappings of traditional theater productions like sets, costumes, lighting and traditional theater spaces. The original idea was: “Hey, let’s just listen to the language and put the language front and center.”

Also, we bring the verse to the people instead of making the people come to the verse. That’s why we perform in wine bars and tasting rooms as much as possible — because people are already hanging out there. Then, all of a sudden, Shakespeare erupts.

Q: I understand. It’s stripped-down Shakespeare. Do people ever get the wrong idea?

Levine: We were trying to boost a post on Facebook and our logo is a caricature of Shakespeare with no clothes on, covering up his crotch. They wouldn’t allow the post because they said it violated their pornography rules.

Q: Why are you vacating the director’s chair now? Just not enough time in the day?

Levine: Yes, but also, from an artistic standpoint, it feels like I don’t have much of anything new left to bring to the table — and Sarah has a lot of new ideas. It doesn’t make sense for me to continue with something that’s maybe not in the company, or my own, best interests.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Actor Joe Quinn (left) drags an audience member into the mix while performing a scene from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Fore River Brewing in South Portland on Monday night with the Naked Shakespeare Company. The company is dedicated to presenting the works of the Bard in non-traditional venues without sets, lights or costumes.

Q: Do you feel like your mission’s been accomplished?

Levine: In 2004, nobody around here was doing Shakespeare except us. Now, there’s lots of Shakespeare. That was my personal goal, to get Shakespeare back into the public eye. It feels like that’s happened. We’ve trained a ton of actors in doing Shakespeare and shown people that Shakespeare can be done in different places.

Q: Sarah, I hear you’re going to take a more ensemble approach to directing the company.

Barlow: It’s always been a master/teacher model and, in that time, we’ve trained so many great actors — we have a good base of people now who have been doing Shakespeare for years. So, we realized we can step up and do this ourselves, without a grand director telling us what to do. I think I’m ready to facilitate that and see where we go.

Q: Now that there’s several local companies doing Shakespeare, why continue to perform this old, dead, white guy’s plays? Is he still relevant?

Barlow: That’s definitely a question. For me, it’s about the language. His stories are not all that inventive — and he stole half of them. It’s how he works the characters through the language — it’s almost like another, separate language. You get work with it, as an actor, and grow with it, as a person. The trick is, how can we get the audience to have that same experience with the language.

Q: And the company will continue to try and connect with audiences in unusual spaces, like Fore River Brewing’s tasting room?

Barlow: We want to give the audience permission to interact. The whole “come in, sit down, shut up, be quiet” thing drives me crazy. People are getting tired of that. It’s probably why theater is shrinking and dying. They’re bored with it they want show where they can come in, relax and be themselves. I want them to be present and lean into the show.

The Naked Shakespeare Company performs July 23 and 30, and Aug. 6 and 13 at Fore River Brewing in South Portland at 7 p.m. All shows are “pay-what-you-can.”

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