BWW Review: WOMEN OF WILL Tracks Shakespeare's Evolving Understanding of Women, at Portland Playhouse
Shakespeare lovers, there's a special treat awaiting you at Portland Playhouse: WOMEN OF WILL, a reflection on Shakespeare's female characters by Tina Packer, Shakespearean actor, director, teacher, and founder of Shakespeare & Company. Part performance, part character analysis / history lesson / philosophical exploration, this very limited run is a must-see for anyone interested in Shakespeare and also in how women are portrayed in art in general.
Packer's knowledge of Shakespeare is extensive -- in addition to acting and directing his plays multiple times, she has taught the whole canon at the university level. This deep understanding allows her to see the overarching themes and patterns that are difficult to discern one play at a time. WOMEN OF WILL looks at how Shakespeare's approach to women changes throughout his career. What she finds is an evolution from women as characters who are projected upon to women with rich internal thoughts and feelings, from simple characters to complex ones with unique forms of wisdom. She calls this Shakespeare's "enlightenment journey."
Packer is joined on stage by Nigel Gore, a British actor with a Shakespeare with an impressive Shakespearean resume of his own. The show alternates between the performance of short pieces and commentary on those pieces. They present the plays (not all of them!) in roughly chronological order so you get a sense of how Shakespeare's thinking evolved, as well as of the broader historical context he worked in, especially for the history plays.
I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from WOMEN OF WILL. Would it be accessible? Would it feel like a lecture? Would I understand the discussion of plays I haven't seen? The answers are Yes, No, and Absolutely.
Despite the fact that Packer and Gore have been performing WOMEN OF WILL on and off for several years, it almost felt like two friends getting together over drinks for a spontaneous discussion about Shakespeare, with performance bits where they test out their ideas. As an example, in the opening scene, Packer tries out three different interpretations of Katherine from The Taming of the Shrew. Because there are snippets of several plays, and because Packer and Gore are masters of their craft, the performances demonstrate not just Shakespeare's enlightenment when it came to women, but his depth of understanding of the best and worst of human nature.
In the end, my only disappointment was that the show was just a one-time deal. In my fantasy world, this kind of thing would happen regularly (and not just for Shakespeare), enabling me to engage more deeply with plays and their characters. Luckily for me, that fantasy will come true on a very small scale. The first several performances of WOMEN OF WILL are overviews. Then, from November 6-10, the shows will take a deep dive into one of the phases Packer has identified.
Wednesday, November 6
Warrior Woman, from Violence to Negotiation
From Joan of Arc and Margaret in Henry VI to Elizabeth in Richard III.
Thursday, November 7
The Sexual Merges with the Spiritual; New Knowledge
Reveals Shakespeare moving from projecting onto women to writing from within women, as if he were a woman himself, illustrated by Romeo and Juliet.
Friday, November 8
Living Underground or Dying to Tell the Truth
Women become the voice of truth, but they either die for telling the truth or they disguise themselves as men. This performance juxtaposes scenes of As You Like It with Othello.
Saturday, November 9
Chaos Is Come Again, the Lion Eats the Wolf
Women desire the same power as men in society in with Macbeth as the exemplary play.
Sunday, November 10
The Maiden Phoenix; The Daughter Redeems the Father
Sees Shakespeare turn to women as the engines of social and cosmic healing. Pericles is this topic's featured play, and the production concludes with "The last woman Shakespeare portrayed," says Packer, the infant Elizabeth in Cranmer's prophecy from Henry VIII.
WOMEN OF WILL runs through Nov. 10. I highly recommend you add it to your calendar. Be sure to see one of the overview performances so you can decide on the deep dive you're most interested in. I'll be there on the 6th. More details and tickets here.
Photo credit: Brud Giles