Gail Burns has been reviewing in the Berkshires for more than a decade. Her background in Shakespeare and women’s issues makes her report on Women of Will exceptionally interesting reading. The article, originally published on her own website, GailSez.org is reprinted here with her permission. Burns will be seeing and writing about the three-day, five-part “Women of Will: The Complete Journey” August 25-27. Please visit GailSez.org then to get the full story.
Nigel Gore and Tina Packer celebrate Shakespeare’s women and Packer’s remarkable talent and career in “Women of Will.” Photo: Kevin Sprague.
“In many ways I’ve been working on this piece for the whole of my artistic life, and I have to ask the question: why should a 21st century feminist spend her time with a dead white male? Well the answer is because I grow, expand, understand myself better with every play in the canon I immerse myself in, and have from the time I was a young actor to becoming a director and teacher. With each play, my awareness expands. He says things in such a way as allows me to understand the world—politically, psychologically, physically, poetically, philosophically—that change my personal and creative life.”
– Tina Packer
Review: Women of Will
by Gail Burns
For the Berkshire-Capital region’s most comprehensive listing of theatre offerings visit GailSez.org
Before Tina Packer and her acting partner Nigel Gore launch in to the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet she explains that the sun was the alchemic symbol for change. When Romeo says “Juliet is the sun” he is putting it mildly. She not only changes his life profoundly, she ends it. And vice versa.
Acting is alchemy and Women of Will, subtitled Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays, allows a remarkable opportunity for the audience to witness two masters of this art change before our eyes. Normally this change takes place before the actor walks on stage, but here we see it – or rather we experience it. There is no moment when either Packer or Gore announces “Now I am Lady Macbeth” “Now I am Othello” but they become them, internally and externally, with minimal assistance from costumes and props, while we watch, and they transport us effortlessly to where each character is in his or her individual story without the warm-up of preceding scenes or the information provided by other characters.
While this is a piece – part theatre, part lecture/demonstration – about the female characters created by William Shakespeare, we all know who the real Woman of Will is. Tina Packer. This is, very simply, the culmination of her life’s work with Shakespeare. Attending this performance is an opportunity to see one of the greatest living experts on performing Shakespeare perform Shakespeare, and let you in on some snippets of what she knows and thinks in the process.
It is also, as she herself has said, an opportunity for her to play many of the roles she would have tackled if she had chosen to remain “just an actress” and not to found and administer Shakespeare & Company for the past 36 years. Now in her mid-sixties, Packer is technically “too old” to be cast as Rosalind or Juliet or Marina or Kate the Shrew, but she proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that age has NOTHING to do with her ability to play these roles and bring great depth and insight to them.
The passion Packer holds for Shakespeare and his female characters is a veritable presence in the Founders’ Theatre. She has sooooooooo much she wants to tell you and show you. The energy she expends is palpable and infectious and exhausting and impressive for a woman of her age. While Packer and Gore are equal partners in the acting, she does all of the lecturing in between scenes, which means she is “on” for the full three hours. And let’s face it, while Gore is a fine actor (He just won his second Eliot Norton Award, for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Hooray!) and attractive eye-candy (something Packer makes sure you notice on several occasions), no one bought a ticket to see him.
Packer’s illuminating author’s note and acknowledgments from the program are quoted in this article, which I hesitate to call a review because, while I will give you my opinion of Women of Will – I loved it – that is completely insignificant. What you need to hear is Packer’s voice about how and why she came to create this piece – a process that has extended over decades – and who and what influenced and informed her.
Something I hear frequently is “Shakespeare didn’t write for women.” I had a chance to speak to Packer on that topic about a month ago and she said she didn’t understand that comment either. Of course, in the sense that women were neither on stage nor in the audience in Shakespeare’s day, his plays weren’t written for women to perform or watch. And the number of male roles in his canon far exceed the female ones, But Shakespeare wrote about women and he wrote women.
When I first studied Shakespeare as a young woman I remember being astonished to hear my thoughts and feelings and concerns written so clearly by this man who lived and worked in another country in another time. Women of Will brought me back to that excitement of first discovery.
Packer has organized Women of Will as a chronological overview of the female roles in Shakespeare’s plays in the order that he wrote them. Now there is scholarly debate about that chronology but Packer has obviously picked an order and stuck with it. In that structure she demonstrates clearly how Shakespeare’s female characters mature, along with him, from standard Virgin and Whore stereotypes to Warrior Women to fully fleshed out human beings who the playwright inhabits and crafts as completely as the men. Juliet is the poster girl for this shift, which brings Shakespeare into his greatest creative period with tragic heroines like Desdemona and Ophelia, and women disguised as men, like Rosalind and Viola.
In his later plays, often referred to collectively as his Romances or Problem Plays, Packer illustrates the theme of the daughter redeemer or Maiden Phoenix, during a time when Shakespeare had left London and returned to his wife and daughters in Stratford.
The fist half of Women of Will, which concludes with the balcony scene, is rather full of English history, as indeed this was the period when Shakespeare wrote most of his History Plays. It had actually never occurred to me until Packer said it on stage that Shakespeare wrote so many histories because they were commercially successful. They are the least accessible to modern and to American audiences and I guess I had always thought he wrote them as sort of Monarch Notes (or is it Spark Notes these days?) for Elizabethans. Why read Holinshed (if you can read at all) when you can pass the exam by going to the theatre – an exciting place with food and whores and sword fights?
Anyway, the first half is a tiny bit more ponderously scholarly than the second but only because Shakespeare improves as a writer. Packer and Gore are delightful in all the roles they assay, which range from, Marina and Pericles (Pericles), and Joan La Pucelle, Margaret of Anjou, and Elizabeth Woodville from the three-part Henry VI cycle, to classic couples like Romeo and Juliet, Kate and Petruchio (Taming of the Shrew), Othello and Desdemona, Rosalind and Orlando (As You Like It), and the Macbeths.
The second half opens with a most intriguing juxtaposition of scenes from As You Like It and Othello, but I have to say my favorite part of the whole evening was the fascinating textual conflation of Macbeth to focus on the central couple. I know that technically Packer and Gore are “too old” (what the HECK does that really mean??) to play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but I am now officially lobbying Tony Simotes to stage The Scottish Play with Packer and Gore in the leads in 2011. If I knew how to start a Facebook petition, like the one that got Betty White to host Saturday Night Live, I would.
As I tell you these things, I have two concerns. One, I was blessed to have excellent instruction in Shakespeare, first by Ruth Carpenter and Frances Taliaferro at The Brearley School and then by Louis Barillet at Sarah Lawrence College. I name my teachers as a method of thanking them for sharing their gifts and insight with me. Because of them, Shakespeare is easy for me. The language doesn’t intimidate me. I know that is not the case for everyone, but I have to say that if I had not had these wonderful teachers, I think Tina Packer would have been the person who brought me to a place of comfort with Shakespeare’s language. I urge you not to let a sense that you don’t or can’t understand Shakespeare prevent you from seeing Women of Will. You WILL understand Will here!
My other caveat is that Women of Will is a curious hybrid of theatre and lecture/demonstration. If your idea of a night at the theatre is pretty costumes and a nice story, that is not what you will get here. Packer and Gore not only play many Shakespearean roles, but they play two actors named Tina Packer and Nigel Gore. Don’t be fooled into believing that most of the “extemporaneous” chat isn’t carefully scripted and rehearsed, these are skilled actors on stage before a paying audience, but Packer and Gore, who have been acting together for a couple of years now, are a solid team and make their banter between scenes feel fresh and live.
Gore is just one of a series of men who have played opposite Packer as Women of Will has taken shape, as director Eric Tucker is just one of many directors to have worked on the project over the years. I am highly suspicious of the idea that anyone other than Packer actually “directed” this piece, but she is wise to officially employ an extra set of eyes to keep things flowing smoothly.
What is playing on the Founders’ Theatre stage through July 24 is merely an overview of the complete Women of Will which is in five, full-length parts and which will be presented only once, over a period of three days August 25-27, with, as Packer told me cheerily, “Lots of eating and talking in between.” John Douglas Thompson will join Packer and Gore for those performances.
This really is a remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime experience of which everyone who loves Shakespeare on stage or on the page should take advantage. I know Packer wanted this to be a “brief” overview, but on opening night it clocked in at three hours with one intermission, which is a tad long, but still pretty impressive when you consider she is condensing a life-time’s worth of work and ideas.
Women of Will runs May 28 through July 24 in the Founders’ Theatre on Shakespeare & Company’s Kemble Street campus in Lenox, MA. The five-part Women of Will: The Complete Journey is to be performed in five parts from August 25 through 27. S&Co.’s usual range of discounting options are available for this performance, including discounts for groups, students, Seniors, and the very popular 40% Berkshire Resident Discount. The Founders’ Theatre is wheelchair accessible and hearing aid assisted. Contact the Box Office at (413) 637-3353 or email@example.com to order tickets or learn more about discount availability, or order tickets from www.shakespeare.org.