Richardson — “Do you not know that I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.” And thank heaven for it. Otherwise, Tina Packer—actor, teacher, founder of Shakespeare & Company and Bard maven extraordinaire—might be inclined to stay (quoting Will again) “warm at home, secure and safe” and keep all that knowledge to herself.
Instead, the intrepid Ms. Packer put head, heart and (as it turns out) body on the line for her much-acclaimed show Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays—even for a small but engaged audience at the Eisenmann Center for the Performing Arts. This shorter version of Packer’s sprawling five-part production left us wanting more but didn’t disappoint, thoroughly living up to its reputation as a lively and head-filling mix of master class and performance.
Presented in partnership with the University of Texas at Dallas School of Arts & Humanities, where Packer and actor Nigel Gore (her terrific performance partner in the show) had been invited to conduct workshops and classes, Women of Will—at least on this day—also gave us a sense of the grit and determination that goes into a long working life in theater.
Between them, Packer and Gore (plus inventive director Eric Tucker) bring decades of experience to the stage. Yet sometimes, on a given day, it all comes down to the “yes, and” of improvisation: What happens if you’ve had a recent knee surgery, and take a spectacular sideways fall across the stage in the first few minutes of the show? Stunned, we look at Packer. She looks at us, propped on one elbow, eyes bright. Yes. And?
“That wasn’t supposed to happen,” she grins—and once on her feet, sails right back into the scene, though there’s a limp and perhaps more than a little pain. We sense she and Gore are making rough-and-ready revisions to the scripted movement onstage. Up on a ladder for the balcony scene? No, the back of this chair will work—and we’ll make sure the scene is all the better for the change. This was theater itself: brave, thinking on its feet—and leaning in, always, to see what can be made of each second onstage. We hope you didn’t suffer any major harm by keeping on, Ms. Packer, and please do come again. Next time, we’ll all bring a friend…or six.
In short scenes from Shakespeare’s earliest to latest plays, Packer (with plenty of chiming in from Gore) analyzes and then portrays what the playwright learned about women—and revealed about himself—during the course of a creative lifetime. His earliest women are, as Packer says, the “shrews or sweeties” of a young man’s imagination: ranting Kate versus demure sister Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew is a classic example. Women who openly step outside the lines face disapproval and even death: “Oh tiger’s heart wrapp’d in a woman’s hide!”—while women who pursue power through the men in their lives (lovers, husbands, sons) are more apt to succeed.
But at a still-early point in his career, something—or someone—happens. Rather suddenly, Shakespeare seems to make a leap of understanding and artistry. He begins “writing about women from the ‘inside’ of women,” says Packer. Was it dark-haired Emilia Bassano—musician, poet, and sharp-tongued lady-about-court—or the accumulation of a life lived vividly in London? Packer is betting on Emilia. In any case, Shakespeare’s Juliet is the first flower of his newfound skill:
Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say 'Aye,'
And I will take thy word: yet if thou swear'st,
Thou mayst prove false; at lovers' perjuries
They say Jove laughs. O gentle Romeo,
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully:
Or if thou think'st I am too quickly won,
I'll frown and be perverse and say thee nay,
So thou wilt woo; but else, not for the world.
Heightened language and gorgeous poetry, yes: but this is the voice of a young and terribly intelligent teen girl—playing with words, but deadly serious about her first love. Perhaps more than Romeo, says Packer, Juliet is the “mover and shaker” of the story: she’s the planner, the one who sees a boy, a balcony and a pair of clasped hands—and schedules a wedding date…for tomorrow. In Shakespeare’s words, Juliet comes fully alive from the inside out, in a way not seen before on any stage.
And she’s only the first. In Rosalind of As You Like It or Viola of Twelfth Night, we find women “telling the truth” and going after what or who they want—but finding the freedom to speak only “in pants,” in disguise as men. As for the girls who “stay in their frocks,” Packer notes, they tend to kill themselves, run mad, or be killed. In a fascinating scene pairing, Packer and Gore switch back and forth between two works: they are a playful Orlando and Rosalind (in pants) at the start of their odd romance, then a frantic Othello and Desdemona, she screaming truth (in a dress) and he blinded by lies as he ends their love story—a chilling scene.
Shakespeare’s women include those—Lady Macbeth, Lear’s daughters (all but one)—who want what the men want so much they are willing to “unsex” themselves. Shakespeare is alert to the value of the feminine at work in the world; without it, there is blood and chaos. And in some last plays Packer calls “myths and parables”—The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, Pericles—Shakespeare (whose later life was much entwined with those of his two grown daughters) writes with extraordinary beauty about women as healers of a damaged world. Wise old women (Paulina in Winter’s Tale) keep the faith; daughters lost and found (Miranda, Perdita, Marina) redeem their fathers when the time is right. There is love, and creativity, and new life in the making—the viragos and virgins of Shakespeare’s early writing years left far behind.
Shakespeare’s bounty being boundless, it’s hard to know where to end. So…I think I’ll just break the fifth wall (that’s the one between my computer monitor and you, dear reader) and admit it: I could sit and watch these two all day. All week, really.
I own a button that says: “Where there’s a Will, there’s a play.” Thanks to Tina Packer (and friend!), I’ll be looking just a bit harder—and smarter—at the “women of Will” I’ve apparently only begun to know.