The answer, I am happy to report, can be found in Women of Will, Tina Packer’s exploration of women in the Shakespearean canon. Currently in performances at the Gym at Judson, Women of Will is a deeply academic and equally rewarding experience that stimulates and delights the senses and the mind.
Packer, the founder and artistic director (until 2009) of the Shakespeare & Company repertory theater and education center in Lenox, MA, has been working on Women of Will for the past 15 years. The result, which is her New York acting debut, is a combination of informal lectures about Shakespeare’s work and the context of his plays and characters and performances of different scenes by Packer and her co-star, Nigel Gore.
Introducing herself as an avowed “21st-century woman” Packer presents thoughtful analysis of the characters, as well as the three meanings of Will in regards to the women: Shakespeare himself, willpower, and sexuality, all of which are capably portrayed by Packer and Gore. They first perform Katherina’s famed speech from The Taming of the Shrew with three different interpretations: maniac, baby-doll cute and depressed. Packer then explains that throughout her work, she has discovered several distinctly different ways in which Shakespeare characterized the women he wrote and proceeds to give stunning portrayals of these characters. Examining the power structures of the time, and what they expected of women, Packer provides valuable context for each of the characters, delivering the information in an informal, easily accessible way.
Throughout the evening, Joan of Arc and Queen Margaret, wreak havoc, while Juliet and Desdemona fall in love and Rosalind works mischief in the forest of Arden. Warrior women, love-struck ladies and devoted daughters come and go, marked with nothing more than a quick donning or shedding of a cape or – literally – a blink of an eye, while making the remarkable transformations appear effortless. An especially powerful scene was performed when Packer and Gore rotated between the rape and death scene in Othello and a scene between Rosalind and Orlando in As You Like It. The juxtaposition of the two scenes – with Desdemona pleading the truth and Othello refusing to believe her and Rosalind speaking the truth while disguised as a woman and Orlando believing every word – is unsettling to say the least and devastating to say the most. Packer described the set up for women in that period, saying, “If they stay in their frocks while doing this, they go mad. If they do it while dressed as men…all goes terribly well,” and noting that while Rosalind was herself, she did not speak very much but, “once she’s banished and starts wearing men’s clothes, you cannot shut her up.” Another especially powerful performance is the abridged depiction of MacBeth, which focuses on the disintegration of the relationship between Lady MacBeth and her husband; the sound and lighting especially enhance this story, as violence and fear push the two apart from each other.
Directed by Eric Tucker, on Valerie Therese Bart’s simple set that contains little except a chair, a table, a belt, a few knives and one extremely bloody handkerchief, and with Les Dickert’s atmospheric lighting, Women of Will relies on the strength of its actors – and these actors are able to shoulder the burden. Packer is a remarkable performer, even at the age of 72, shifting seamlessly from one character to another. She is joined onstage by Gore, who strides into the room stating matter of factly, “I come bearing testosterone,” and does just that and much more, also giving in-depth, emotionally invested performances as them men who join these women in each scene. Given the intensely immersive atmosphere of Women of Will, hearing the male perspective can be jarring; after the Queen Margaret scene, Gore commented that he wanted to kill Packer due to how brutally she emasculated him. Nothing the double standards of the time, he described Margaret as a woman who could shrink a man’s testicles. This commentary provokes the question of whether a powerful woman can be viewed as feminine – and for that matter, what exactly femininity is; a question that is still asked frequently today, centuries after Shakespeare laid down his pen.
While some have complained that Women of Will too strongly resembles a classroom lecture – Packer even says, “And you will all get your tests tomorrow” – this is one class I would not mind paying off student loans for.