The complete Women of Will is an exhausting adventure, led by a manically enthused and deeply generous and talkative tour director who also is a fabulous actor.
Reviewed by Susan Miron
Women of Will. Written and performed by Tina Packer. Directed by Eric Tucker. Featuring Tina Packer and Nigel Gore. At Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA, September 11 and 12.
“If you want to know what Shakespeare thought, listen to his women,” was Tina Packer’s oft repeated mantra over a 3 day, 5 performance marathon of her portrayal of the most important of Shakespeare’s female characters. A quite condensed version of this 15 hour-long Shakespeare-a-thon, Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays was performed earlier in the summer to great acclaim.
So what is the result of stretching this theatrical exploration/meditation into 31 scenes? Sometimes exhilarating, often thrilling, never pedestrian. I was not the only one (of about 140 people) sitting glued to her seat, hour after hour, day after day, but I might have been the only one with as scant a knowledge of Shakespeare. I was engaged throughout, but, of course, I love a marathon (as long as I’m sitting). I found the Wagner Ring in the Chicago Lyric Opera so compelling I wanted to go back and see it the next week.
So length doesn’t bother me or the several luminaries in the audience who were on hugging terms with each other and with Tina. I confess my power to sit had its limits: I loved every scene until a serious headache did me in on Part Four.
This was perhaps not every guy’s idea of Shakespeare, but the 15 or so mostly elderly men, most dragged there by their wives, stayed awake and didn’t look unhappy at this ardently feminist presentation of Shakespeare’s progress from callow youth to wise man.
Each time a few new spectators would join the Tin-a-thon the actress would explain the three meanings of will, as in Women of Will. There are, she says, 177 women and 770 men in his plays. Women are always Other, separate, outside of the power structure most of the time. There is, needless to say, the Will of the playwright’s name itself. Then there is the will to power and how power is wielded against his women. Finally there is the archaic meaning of sexual desire and “parts as well”—how the women use their sexuality and how it’s used against them.
The 23 scenes were held in a large rehearsal room: the configuration of the seats were rejiggered as the scenes changed. The young director Eric Tucker was actively involved; this was still a work-in-progress much of the time. But no one cared. The performances—31 scenes—of Packer and her frequent acting partner, Nigel Gore, were dazzling. Gore brought an element of danger, raw energy, and anger—like a tiger let loose—and he was never less than enthralling, if terrifying. He is a superb foil for Packer, as anyone who saw them last fall in Boston performing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? can attest.
Tina has clearly been passionate about this material for decades, and she seemed to be bursting with well-prepared, provocative thoughts of all historical and literary sorts. Much of the time I felt like as if I were enjoying an elite graduate seminar—lots of heady Tina Talk, lots of note taking because it was all so interesting, interrupted by her seamlessly moving,as an actor, into a scene that would illustrate exactly what she meant. It was enormously illuminating.
At lunch people kept talking about what they had just seen. It was okay for this to happen at lunch, but when we were—horrors!—asked by Tina for feedback, I thought this deeply detracted from the extraordinary mood created in this magical example of makeshift theater.
Packer, founding artistic director (for 25 years) of Shakespeare & Company, has been working on this expansive interpretation of the feminine principle in the Bard for a long time, and the result was often exhilarating, sometimes thrilling. Packer subdivided her Shakespearean odyssey into five parts, each about three hours long.
“Act I: Warrior Women—from Violence to Negotiation” features (among others) “Warrior Women—From Violence to Negotiation,” which included Kate and Petruchio from The Taming of the Shrew, three scenes from Henry VI and Romeo and Juliet, which was deeply moving and quite credible although this Juliet hasn’t been young for quite some while.
“Act II: New Knowledge—The Sexual Merges with the Spiritual” was simply stunning, featuring more of Juliet and Romeo, Desdemona and Othello (Othello), Beatrice and Benedick (Much Ado About Nothing), and an unforgettable Cleopatra and Antony, played on a velvet flooring of quilts, his head between her legs. As Packer sees it, Shakespeare writes from “within” Juliet who falls “equally in love and drives the language, actually suggesting marriage.”
In “Act III: Living Underground—Or, Dying to Tell the Truth,” Packer believes Shakespeare was using women now more and more to “tell the truth.” Says Packer, “If they stay in their frocks they end up dead.” This act featured a large cast—Hamlet; Desdemona and Othello again; Rosalind and Orlando from As You Like It; and, among others, Viola, Olivia, and Orsino from Twelfth Night.
When the Shakepeare-a-thon continued on Thursday morning, it was “Act IV: Chaos is Come Gain—The Lion Eats the Wolf.” The windows of the rehearsal studio were blackout out, and junk and papers covered the floor. No one was allowed in late to break the mood. It was the hand-washing scene with a spooky Lady Macbeth and the crazed Macbeth. This was surely one of the great scenes from any of the five acts, performed to perfection. The rest of this act included Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, Lear, and Gloucester, while Act V included characters from Pericles and The Winter’s Tale.
No doubt those who sat through all the 23 scenes wished for more. It was an exhausting adventure, led by a manically enthused and deeply generous tour director who happened to be a fabulous actor, as is her male co-star.