The punning title of Women of Will might apply to a lecture on Shakespeare’s women as well as a description of strong-headed heroines, but as a rubric for Tina Packer’s two-person exploration of the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays, it gives little hint of her vast knowledge and the remarkable insights in a five-part show—six, if one counts the Overview, which provides less depth but more scope.
To describe Packer’s shows as scenes with interspersed commentary is accurate, but it doesn’t convey the juiciness of either performance or thesis. In all of them, Packer and her cohort Nigel Gore enact scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, and as each unfolds Packer offers a summary of her opinions on Shakespeare’s evolution in portraying his heroines. A Shakespearean completist would want to attend all the segments, but anyone unable to set aside time to view them in order needn’t balk at picking and choosing. A visit to Part 2 alone yielded satisfying performances and interesting insights, and the program includes a note from Packer to explain her intentions.
For the record, Part 2 deals with Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Merchant of Venice. Packer, who founded Shakespeare & Company in the Berkshires more than two decades ago, says, “I started to perceive a pattern in the development of Shakespeare’s writing of the female characters when I had directed about twenty-five of the plays…once I had seen it, I couldn’t let it go.” From that discovery the director gradually assembled the shows she is presenting in New York. Anyone who loves either Shakespeare or theater should be enchanted by the result.
Part 2 is entitled “The Sexual Merges with the Spiritual,” and it examines the lovers in the five plays: Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado, of course, and Jessica and Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice, along with the eponymous lovers in the other three plays. Among the questions Packer looks to answer are “How does love endure through loss and shame?”
Following on Shakespeare’s treatment of women in earlier plays—e.g. the Henry VI plays, Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew—Packer contends that Juliet is the first heroine to fully merge the two aspects of sexual and spiritual. She and Gore perform the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, and it is both hugely disappointing and brilliantly performed. The disappointment comes from knowing that Packer, who is firmly in middle age, understands the character better than any young actress of 20 or less (Juliet is supposedly 14), and the likelihood of seeing a production with an age-appropriate actress of equal skill is nil. In Packer’s scene Juliet is young, impulsive, passionate, questioning, words spilling out, then her realization: “I am too fond.” There is music in the way she and Gore handle the verse, but there is also a sense of their speaking an everyday language that is poetic, yet not thumpingly metrical. Years of expertise with language, meter, pauses, tempo, and pitch contribute to the colors of their portrayals. It’s all supplemented by an enjoyable rapport between the outspoken Gore and the director in their talk about the women.
Choice tidbits about the plays surface unexpectedly in Packer’s mini-lectures. For instance, Romeo’s jumping over the wall to reach Juliet’s balcony is akin to leaving his sexual nature behind and embracing something spiritual. Monks and nuns, Packer points out, “leaped over a wall” in a figurative way when they undertook the spiritual life.
Some of Packer’s speculations are unfamiliar. She suggests that Shakespeare, away from his wife and children in Stratford, fell in love with the dark woman of the sonnets, whom she believes is Emilia Bassano, a musician from Venice. Gore observes an increased presence of music in the plays from this period that dovetails with such speculation. Emilia, Packer notes, was also the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain, the patron of Shakespeare’s company. Packer discourses equally well on the title of Much Ado About Nothing and its sexual implications. One occasionally wants to hear more, especially when, following a scene from Antony and Cleopatra, Packer comments that “off they go, probably dressed in each other’s clothes.” Although it’s not a full meal, as only a great production of a Shakespeare play can be, Women of Will is a mouth-watering smorgasbord.