Original Article

Women of Will — Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

Book my trip to Lenox, Massachusetts. After seeing, and hearing, the magic Tina Packer, can conjure using primarily language, movement, and attitude, I want to see anything theatrical in which she has a hand, including her work at the seasonal Shakespeare & Company repertory she founded in the Berkshires decades ago.

Luck, and probably the wisdom of artistic director Patrick Mulcahy, brought Packer, in tandem with actor Nigel Gore, to the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, where the pair is turning Packer’s show, “Women of Will” into a demonstration, and lesson, of how to maximize the brilliance the Bard provides and make it thrillingly immediate.

Packer begins by presenting the identical text from “The Taming of the Shrew” in three different ways that show the choices available to an actor and director in staging an early Shakespearean work that has become controversial because of the means by which Petruchio tames Katherine — starvation, ridicule, stubbornness — and Katherine’s crowning speech, “I do not know why women are so simple.” Each way Packer delivers her lines is exciting. You are brought into the heart of the play and the scene being enacted. Interpretation can depend on making one slight decision about emphasis, and shrewish or tame, Kate can be merry or sardonic about her treatment and how it influences her tone and expression. She can be straightforward, or she can be cynical, saying what she wants Petruchio to hear, and one-upping her sister and other recent brides, while hinting at the iron fist within the velvet glove. Packer is just plain masterful as she shows you various Shakespearean heroines she says illustrate the five stages in the Elizabethan’s progression as a playwright. Kate begins a pageant that includes Margaret of Anjou from the “Henry VI” trilogy and “Richard III,” Juliet from “Romeo and Juliet,” Desdemona from “Othello,” Lady Macbeth from “Macbeth,” Rosalind from “As You Like It,” and Marina from “Pericles” among others. With the versatile British accent, Packer is liquid of tongue and can simultaneously reveal the poetry and dramatic matter within a Shakespearean phrase. Listening to her is a delight and an education, especially when she and Gore perform passage from plays rarely seen, such as “Henry VI” and “Pericles.” Packer makes you wish she would record the entire Shakespeare canon, assaying all of the characters, just so you can hear her mellifluous reading and smart, perceptive phrasing. “Women of Will” is a constant delight because of all the training and experience Packer displays as well as the ease and humanity with which she and Gore portray their various characters. They make the obscure familiar while making you want to hunt down Shakespearean classics to enjoy more of the figures Packer and Gore bring to such vivid and thorough life. (Anyone looking for a well-conceived and acted “Macbeth” need go no further than the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, where Ian Bedford, Susan Riley Stevens, Perry Ojeda, Anthony Lawton, Deanna Gibson, Jacob Dresch, and Suzanne O’Donnell show how easily corruption can be born from suggestion in Patrick Mulcahy’s intense production.) The amazing thing about Packer and Gore is the depth, power, and resonance they eke from a minimal approach to their material. Both appear as you might expect to see them on the street, Packer wearing a nondescript V-neck jersey top over ordinary pants, Gore in a gray French T-shirt and jeans. A cape or amulet may pop out of a trunk drawer to embellish a character. Packer has a simple green sleeveless, floor-length frock she throws over her own clothes when it serves her characters’ purpose. In general, most of the magic is done with the voice. Several times, Packer points out how a difference in delivering a speech can change everything. She also shows how the freedom Rosalind has when she addresses Orlando while dressed as a young man, Ganymede, during a segment of “Women of Will” in which she is showing how Shakespeare uses the masculine side of any woman to play what happens when a woman dons male attire and must, usually for her safety, sustenance, or survival, act as a man. Gore, by contrast, displays the softer side of men, a feminine instinct if you like, in characters such as Orlando and even Macbeth, who must be driven by his wife to proceed with the deed that is the nearest way for him to fulfill the witches’ prophecy Macbeth shall be Scotland’s king. Packer has a wonderful moment when, as Lady Macbeth, she is reading the letter Macbeth sent her following his meetings with the witches and Duncan, the latter of which confirms a prediction from the former. You can see the instant at which Lady M. has the notion to accelerate the course of history and take matters into the hands that will in turn become bloody and then uncleansable. “Women of Will” has a potent effect. Upon enjoying Packer and Gore’s enlightening assortment of Shakespearean scenes and being so grandly and intelligently entertained, you may feel inclined to run out and see full productions of the Bard’s 38 works in one fell swoop. I have had the advantage of seeing all 38 and would like to view the entire lot again, one after another, in the order they were written. (Canada’s Stratford Festival is a good place to start — “King Lear,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “King John,” and two takes on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” being on the playbill. John Lithgow is playing Lear with Annette Bening as Goneril in New York’s Central Park. Trips to Lenox, Mass. — “Julius Caesar,” “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “Romeo and Juliet” — and Ashland, Oregon — “The Comedy of Errors,” “Richard III, ” The Tempest,” “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” — provide other opportunities. Oh, for a grant to see the entire bounty available!) “Women of Will” is a great way to experience both well-known and arcane bits from Shakespeare’s plays while hearing Packer talk about the five stages of artistic evolution she sees in the Bard’s work and enjoying Nigel Gore’s clever and instructive asides. Actors of the caliber of Packer and Gore make all look so easy while revealing the complexity of making Shakespeare’s characters timeless and human. Entertaining beyond measure, educational to a pleasant degree, enchanting throughout, and enlightening in ways too fine and numerous to count, “Women of Will” is an experience no fan of Shakespeare should miss. The sadness and horror Packer and Gore bring to “Othello,” the romantic lightness and sweetness with which they endow “Romeo and Juliet,” Rosalind’s playfulness contrasted to Orlando’s naivety in “As You Like It,” and moving scenes from “Macbeth” and “Pericles” are among many sequences that recommend the show. Wit, insight, and the play of honed, intelligent talent is the bonus. Me to Lenox and more Tina Packer as fast as my budget will carry me ! (Which probably means next year.)

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Theatre Development Fund

Playing All of Shakespeare’s Women (At Once) Tina Packer navigates “Women of Will”
“Consider the challenge in just the first part of the marathon: Packer and costar Nigel Gore tackle The Comedy of Errors, Richard III, Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, and all three parts of Henry IV. In between, they analyze the role of women within each play, studying Shakespeare’s early treatment of the fairer sex.”
Read the full article at Theatre Development Fund

NY Daily News

“Wall-to-Wall William Shakespeare”
“Spring blooms with wall-to-wall Will Shakespeare on stages and bookshelves.”
Read the full article on NY Daily News

“Shakespeare & Co’s ‘Women of Will’ Commands Attention in New York Debut ”
“After thrilling New York audiences with the Overview for the past two months, Packer and company will now offer ‘The Complete Journey,’ the complete edition of all five Parts over a period of three days, starting this Friday, April 5. The plays follow Shakespeare chronologically from his earliest works, as Packer outlines his growth and development as a playwright, as well as changing preoccupation with the role of women in his plays, who play ever more powerful roles, for good or ill, in his work.”
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Wall Street Journal

“Brilliant! Fearlessly impassioned acting that you’ll remember for as long as you live.”
Read the full article on The Wall Street Journal


“NY1 “On Stage” Video Interview with Tina and Nigel ”
“Shakespeare began off not as a feminist at all. He was projecting on women they’re either viragos or they’re sweet little virgins on the pedestal. You know, he was a kid, he was projecting on women but he really didn’t understand women, but by the time he got to the end of his life he was saying, ‘Guys, if we don’t follow the women, if we don’t run our lives the way women run their lives, we’re going to be in real trouble.’ I think he ended up as a real feminist.”
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“Moderated Talk-Back Tuesdays to Kick Off at WOMEN OF WILL Off-Broadway, 3/19”
“Tina Packer’s Women of Will is her groundbreaking exploration of Shakespeare’s canon through the eyes of his female characters”
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WBAI Radio

“Tina Packer talks about her play Women of Will to WBAI host Janet Coleman – original air date, 3-25-13”
“Tina Packer discusses her rendition of Women of Will on 99.5fm Pacifica Radio”
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Art Info

“Q&A With Actor Tina Packer: Shakespeare and Freud, Female Power, and Manti Te’o”
“I believe that Shakespeare saw how deeply unfair society was to women and he increasingly wanted to reveal that. I don’t know if he played women’s parts as an actor, but he really got it.”
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Works by Women

“Interview: Tina Packer”
“But then I started realizing that Shakespeare was using the women to stand up for what is true in the world, whether it’s about the love between a man and a woman, or somebody like Ophelia, who runs mad to tell the truth…And so I feel as if Shakespeare himself started identifying more with the women and less with the soldiers who were going to do ‘honorable deeds’ and fix the problem just by beating somebody else. You can notice as the plays go on, there are fewer and fewer outright fights after Henry V and the women become real players whether to undo the fights or just to have their say.”
Read the full article on Works by Women