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Theater

Women of Will, the Complete Journey
, by Tina Packer
, with Tina Packer and Nigel Gore
, Shakespeare & Company, Bernstein Theater, Lenox

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Tina Packer and Nigel Gore in Women of Will, 2011. Photo Kevin Sprague.
Tina Packer and Nigel Gore in Women of Will, 2011. Photo Kevin Sprague.

Women of Will, The Complete Journey
, by Tina Packer
, with Tina Packer and Nigel Gore
Shakespeare & Company, Bernstein Theater, Lenox, Massachusetts
Through July 10, 2011

For lovers of Shakespeare and those new to or fearful of the bard, Tina Packer’s “Women of Will, The Complete Journey,” aka “WOW,” playing in Parts I-V on five evenings and matinees through July 10 at Shakespeare & Co’s Bernstein theater, is more than a wow—it is a tour de force for acting, conception, and for what theater was for the Elizabethans and what it can be now, but often is self-consciously not. These performances hold to the Elizabethan venue with imagination leading the way. The five parts illustrate a different theme, repeating in a sense the five-act dramatic structure of Shakespeare’s plays.

For theater: this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I can’t stop thinking about what I saw, what I heard, what I learned. The cumulative experience, by the end, felt as if we all made appearance on the stage, and that the characters had been set spinning, not tightly wrapped, ready to be wholly identified and embraced again.

Shakespeare’s women can feel like cameos or second billing in some interpretations I’ve seen. Not here. Packer looks specifically at Shakespeare’s women chronologically (the canon counts 180 women to 700 plus men) just as they are written, and reenacts twenty or more women’s journeys throughout the five evolutions.

Ms. Packer is entirely qualified and more so to take on this project; she has spent more time with Shakespeare than any other man, a member of the audience told me. A founder of Shakespeare & Co., she has directed and acted in most of his plays. To my knowledge, no one has ever been able to bring this depth to the women characters or has in 400 years approached Shakespeare from this perspective.

WOW is a well thought out, deep look—full of wit and asides—at the questions raised by his women.  Was there no other way to deal with jealousy or the threat of outside power than revenge?  But WOW is not “women’s liberation” redux.  Packer comments that as 21st century men and women we know or should know our feminine side and masculine side.

What WOW examines is the feminine perspective: intuition, identity, relationships and feelings. Packer categorizes Shakespeare’s female characters as negotiators, advocates for justice, rescuers, passionate lovers, truth tellers, queens as well as warriors, revengers, competitors for power. It is therefore these women’s eyes, she says, that we comprehend the social and political power structure.

Shakespeare himself by the end of the canon merges his many sensitivities as playwright, actor, believer in the soul and the psyche, and passionate responder to the developing relations of women and men. The language and rhythm broadens noticeably in beat and lyricism as Shakespeare’s women assume center stage to tell what they know, see, and feel.

In the early comedies (Comedy of Errors) and the War of the Roses histories (Henry VI, Parts 1-3, Richard III), women are almost devices: angels, viragos, warriors caught soulless and without a way to respond (Taming of the Shrew) in the remnants of the Medieval world order. Shakespeare’s first woman character is Joan of Arc. By.Part II, some years later, and perhaps having fallen in love with a woman in Queen Elizabeth’s court, he takes a leap over the wall uniting women (now with souls) and men sexually and spiritually (Romeo & Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) in action and in language.  In Part III women emerge as heroines who have to tell the truth about who they are, often going underground to guarantee it (Rosalind, Jessica, Beatrice). Without the cover–up, Packer contends, they died or commited suicide. All the while Shakespeare’s language becomes richer, more personal and interior and women are heard no matter what their disguise, class or appetite. The underground women find a way most of the time to get what they want.  In Part IV, chaos returns with despair. Shakespeare asks: What happens when women don’t  want a different voice in society and want the same power and goals as men (Macbeth, Coriolanus, and King Lear)? Tragedy does not redeem itself. In Part V, Maiden Phoenix, Shakespeare turns to ancient sources—myths and fairy tales (Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest) where tragedy seems inevitable, but through younger women, daughters, truth returns and the world becomes right again.

Tina Packer suggests that Shakespeare during the last plays had healed his own life as his women took their place along side men—the sexual and spiritual well merged. In a final quote from his last play (Henry VIII) Shakespeare may be paying homage to women’s spirit (Elizabeth I is just a baby) as the Maiden Phoenix appears: “A thousand blessing on this land… Truth should nurse her.” She’ll be loved and feared. She’ll learn but not by blood.

Tina Packer narrates the themes and inhabits all the women. She fills in with history, biography when necessary, and speaks directly to the audience as to what to listen for (The Elizabethans came to listen.). Equally strong and compelling is Nigel Gore, the male counterpart, who matches her wit for wit, emotion for emotion, and takes on the many men’s roles as well as a couple of women’s, (dizzyingly they sometimes switch back and forth). Beat for beat, on a slimly accoutered stage, they sweep us along and illustrate their hates, love, controls, jealousies, ecstasies, reconciliations like dancers making virtuosic turns and never losing their place.

This is not to be missed.

Shakespeare & Company, 80 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA
For schedule and tickets, online (www.Shakespeare.org)
or call the Box Office (413-637-3353)

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