Christine McNamara readily admits, “a lot of people think I’m crazy.” She works two full-time jobs, but manages to find time to add a little Shakespeare to her acting tool kit. McNamara is among the actors who will star in the Riverbank Shakespeare Festival, hosted by Acorn Productions. The festival, which opens Friday at Riverbank Park along the Presumscot River in Westbrook, features two shows: “The War of the Roses,” directed by Michael Levine, and “The Tempest,” directed by Karen Ball.
Both shows feature actors who have taken on the challenge of Shakespeare for the fun of it. Because of the Elizabethan-era language, Shakespeare is considered difficult text for actors to master. But it’s also rewarding.
“I really enjoy the language and learning how to speak the language,” said McNamara, who plays Margaret in “The War of the Roses” and is a dental hygienist in her other life. “I enjoy learning the meaning and what is actually being said. The structure of the language is quite different than how you and I would talk.”
An abridged, one-hour version of “The Tempest” includes teen actors in Acorn’s Young Actors Shakespeare Conservatory, while “The War of the Roses” features new apprentices from the Acorn Shake- speare Conservatory, a training program for older actors.
“The War of the Roses” melds elements from the three parts of “Henry VI” into one full-length play full of political intrigue, swordfights, backstabbing and English history. Levine compiled the text for the show, stripping it of its subplots and focusing on the political action.
Acorn began its Shakespeare conservatory in 2005. Its actors are best known for performing stripped-down versions in the Naked Shakespeare series, often performing in bars and casual settings without sets or costumes. The idea is to focus on the language and meaning of the words.
The Riverbank Shakespeare Festival extends that idea. These shows are fully developed, but presented with minimal costumes and sets.
The apprentice program attracts actors who have an interest in Shakespeare that was typically kindled in school, then allowed to smolder in adult life. The Acorn acting programs give actors a chance to refuel their interest in Shakespeare, Levine said.
“We usually attract people who are very interested in language first and foremost,” he said. “Some of the folks are actors looking to deepen their ability to work with classical text, but it’s mostly people who are interested in Shakespeare and read it for fun.”
“I joined the apprentice program to get back into theater, but also as a challenge,” said McNamara. “I had never done Shakespeare before. I had done other kinds of theater, mostly comedy. But never Shakespeare.”
Her story is shared by many.
“I’ve always had a good experience with Shakespeare,” said Dominica Coulson, who was born in South Korea, raised in England and now lives in Portland. “But I never thought I’d be discovering acting Shakespeare in Portland, Maine.”
Coulson is playing Prince Edward, Henry’s son, in “The War of the Roses.” “I love the fact that I am going to be a young prince,” he said. “He’s a very idealistic character, and what I enjoy is trying to be prince-like. I enjoy the battle scenes as well. I’ve never had a swordfight.”
“I wanted to delve back into Shakespeare after doing musical theater,” said Jessica Labbe, 24, who lives in Saco and acts at City Theater.
Labbe studied Shakespeare in middle and high school, and worked in musical theater at Smith College. She plays Richard Duke of Gloucester in “The War of the Roses.”
“It’s been fantastic. Mike and the others at Acorn instill in you the importance of delving down into the text,” she said.
Tristan Rolfe, 21, has enjoyed Shakespeare since he was a child. For bedtime stories, his parents read him Greek myths, on which Shakespeare based many of his plays.
“I found his works fascinating in grade school,” said Rolfe, who lives in Portland and will play Edward in “The War of the Roses.” “That is when I started to feel close to him. I appreciate the intellectual depth of the language, as well as the simplicity and directness of the emotion, and both things at once.”
Haley Jo Cutrone, 16, of Hollis plays Prospero in “The Tempest.” It’s a huge part. She’s a sophomore at The Waynflete School, and has acted in several Shakespeare plays at school and through Acorn. “Prospero” is by far her biggest part and biggest challenge to date.
“Yeah, it’s a lot of lines,” she said, laughing. “One of the challenges is that she, or he, is a middle-aged character with a daughter. Her goal throughout the play is to marry off that daughter and get vengeance.
“It’s hard for me to understand that middle-age thing. I’m 16. But I like the passion.”
Cutrone often judges the success of her performance based on audience reaction.
“When you see the audience light up and go, ‘Oh, I understand,’ that is so rewarding,” she said. “It’s really fun when you finally get it and learn how to decipher it and figure out what he means and why the character is saying that. It makes you feel smart.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: [email protected] Twiiter: pphbkeyes