DramaWatch: Tina Packer’s feminine forces of Will

"Women of Will" charts Shakespeare's growth through his portrayals of female characters; Theatre Vertigo peers over the edge; plus shows and more shows.

Since its founding in 2008, Portland Playhouse has yet to stage a full production of a William Shakespeare play, leaning instead on August Wilson and Charles Dickens, and showcasing 21st-century playwriting stars such as Theresa Rebeck and Tarell Alvin McCraney. Yet Shakespeare has played a central role in the company. Two of the company’s founders, Brian and Nikki Weaver, worked together early in their careers at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. The educational model the Weavers learned there to work with high school students they’ve since replicated here with the Fall Festival of Shakespeare.

The connection bears juicier fruit this fall as the Playhouse presents a show — or rather a series of shows, really — called Women of Will, by the justly acclaimed Shakespeare and Co. founding artistic director Tina Packer. 

British-born actor-director Tina Packer unpacks Shakespeare’s views of women and society in Women of Will. Photo: Kevin Sprague, 2011.

The basic Women of Will, which opens Oct. 24, offers a thematic overview of many of the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays, their psychological dimensions and dramatic functions, and of Packer’s theory that these characters reveal essential things about Shakespeare’s artistic growth. Beginning Nov. 6, the schedule also folds in a series of five one-night-only deep dives, with titles such as Warrior Woman, from Violence to Negotiation and The Maiden Phoenix; The Daughter Redeems the Father. Packer performs selections from the plays, with the help of actor Nigel Gore, elucidating along the way in a fluid lecture-demo approach.
When I first noticed Women of Will on the Playhouse schedule I thought, “Oh, I’ve seen this sort of thing before.” What it brought to mind was Virgins to Villains: My Journey with Shakespeare’s Women, a solo show by Oregon Shakespeare Festival stalwart Robin Goodrin Nordli; she performed it as a Portland Shakespeare Project fundraiser in 2015. That show, however, was highly personal, recounting the Shakespearean roles that she had performed and how the characters reflected her own life experiences.
Packer’s approach is more dramaturgical. 

“When I was working on Shakespeare’s plays as a director, I started realizing that there was a pattern to the way in which Shakespeare wrote the women characters,” Packer says in a brief Broadway.com video about the show. “And then I started realizing the pattern was actually to do with Shakespeare’s psychological development; it’s his enlightenment journey. And once I started realizing that, I couldn’t wait to map out the whole thing.”

The progression, roughly speaking, takes us from women as victims of violence to women as truth tellers, to women as seekers of power and finally as what we might think of as agents of redemption.

“It’s really with Juliet he begins,” Packer told Charlie Rose in a 2013 interview. “That’s when you hear Shakespeare inside, if I can put it like that: embodying women as opposed to writing about women. And by the time he gets to the late plays, he actually says, look, the only way out of the violence cycle is to follow what the women are doing — and the creative spirit, but there’s an alignment between women and the creative spirit…

“This is political for me, as well as poetical and philosophical.”

The flattened stage

Speaking of Slick Willy’s women, how about the way they get into it at Minnesota’s Great River Shakespeare Festival?

The flattened stage — live!

One of the reasons that theater snobs are theater snobs is because they love it live — that is, the immediacy and presence of a production playing out onstage in front of (or, sometimes, all around) you, the audience member. But sometimes, we have to take what we can get.

As half measures go, however, NT Live — the live-captured, high-definition-video presentations of stage productions from the National Theatre in London — can be mighty satisfying. Personally, I tend to find them somewhat overdetermined, with cuts and close-ups that forestall the choices in attention and focus that a true theater event allows. But on the other hand, there’s dramatic intelligence to the camera choices, and the caliber of design and performance is a wonderful thing to be able to take in with a mere jaunt downtown instead of a trip across the Atlantic. 

Up next in the series, screened at the World Trade Center Theater: 
On Sunday: The Lehman Trilogy, Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles, directed by Sam Mendes, in an acclaimed (and somewhat lengthy) examination of the long-running family-run financial firm that would wind triggering the Great Recession.

On Sunday and repeating on Saturday, Oct. 26: Fleabag, the solo show that launched the TV-series adaptation and the stardom of creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Vertigo on the edge

A year ago, theater insider and ArtsWatcher extraordinaire Bobby Bermea took an in-depth look at Theatre Vertigo, the plucky Portland company whose history of exciting, risk-taking work has proceeded hand-in-hand with its history of continually destabilizing roster turnover. Talking about the challenge of feeling a sense of ownership amid the fluidity, company member 

Robert David Wyllie recalled wondering:  “’It’s been around for a while, I didn’t found it, is it gonna feel like mine?’ And pretty much instantly, it did. Because there’s always a crisis. Either you’re new and it’s your first crisis or you’ve lived through two or three crises and you’re like, ‘Okay, that’s just how it is.’ You just roll with it.”

One flask over the line: Theatre Vertigo has specialized in the rough-edged energy of plays such as The Drunken City. Photo: Theatre Vertigo, 2015.

In the time since, Wyllie and others have left Vertigo, but his diagnosis holds for their replacements: Theatre Vertigo is facing another crisis.

“With rent prices skyrocketing, The Shoebox in dire need of upgrades and repairs, and theatre attendance dwindling, this Portland theatre icon is in jeopardy of not being able to continue on to year 23,” begins the plea on a recently created Save Theatre Vertigo page at GoFundMe.com. “This campaign will help us cover the immediate costs of closing out our first show of the season, rent and expenses for The Shoebox for November and December (approximately $5,400), much needed repairs to our electrical system, and initial funding for our January show.”

Over the first 10 days since the appeal was posted, donors have pledged about $2,000 toward the theater’s $10,000 goal. 

“People have been a little confused over whether this is about saving Theatre Vertigo or saving the Shoebox,” new company member Adriana Gantzer (who’s currently doing fine work in Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s A View From the Bridge) said in a phone interview. “I think really it’s both. We don’t have the funds to cover November and December rent; we’ve been scraping it together every month.”

Beyond the immediate financial crunch, the company has its sights on creating a process for long-term tracking and management of grant applications and business donations, the sort of administrative and fiscal infrastructure that’s been hard to establish in a company with shoestring budgets, mostly volunteer labor (beyond production casts and crews) and frequent burnout-induced turnover.

In her note on the GoFundMe page, and over the phone, Gantzer sounds passionate about the unique value she sees in the company, in its “edgier, intimate shows” and “dedicated and motivated” people. Asked if the loss of the Shoebox Theatre, where Vertigo has performed since the 2013 closing of the larger Theater! Threatre!, would mean the end of Theatre Vertigo her enthusiasm wanes.

“I think so. I know I personally wouldn’t be up for going forward, having to search for places to perform, on top of everything else…It is dire.” 

Opening

Profile Theatre’s Josh Hecht directs The Baltimore Waltz, Paula Vogel’s farcical tragi-comic tribute to her brother, who died of AIDS-related complications in the 1980s. A cast featuring 

Joshua Weinstein and Jen Rowe is reason enough to put this on your list.


Milagro’s annual production in celebration of Día de Muertos takes a romantic tack this year with Amor Anejo, conceived and directed by the fiercely talented Elizabeth Huffman. Longtime lovers encounter an underworld shapeshifter and, as the theater puts it, “we find ourselves in the space where the living and the dead co-exist, where all the loves of our lives, romantic, paternal, filial, and friendly, complicated, wound, and nourish us. Where memories never fade –where love never dies.”

Quick hits

Lakewood Theatre continues its Lost Treasures Collection — concert/cabaret-style presentations of lesser-known musicals — with The High Life. Written in 1961 (when it appeared under the title The Gay Life), by Fay and Michael Kanin (book), Howard Dietz (lyrics) and Arthur Schwartz (music),  it’s about a Viennese lady’s man in 1904, attempting to tame his philandering ways and settle down (“I’m finished with love. I’m going to get married”). Broadway World has called it “a champagne cocktail of a musical” and an “overlooked charmer.”


Also keeping the calendar full at the lovely Lakewood Center for the Arts, singer-actors Jan Koenig and Lisa Knox, backed by a top-flight jazz trio, present their cabaret-style show Here We Go Again.

Closing

For athletes, pre-game warm-ups may not be the main event, but they can be crucial. So it is with The Wolves, the terrific Sarah DeLappe play still on the stage — or is it the pitch? — at Portland Playhouse. Telling a story about the members of a girls’ indoor-soccer team through the tumbling conversations as they prepare for matches, the play’s winning naturalism provides what feels like real insight into the personality development, group dynamics and social hierarchies of young women as they grapple with the ethical and emotional conundrums of finding a place in the world. Adolescence may be their warm-up to adulthood, but the moment-by-moment experience of it can be just as impactful and important as what it’s presaging. 

We came to play! The Wolves warm up at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles.

Directed by Jessica Wallenfels, the Playhouse production strikes a deft balance between the activity and physical immediacy that the story’s setting demands and the nuanced movement of ideas and relationships that plays out in the dialogue. With teamwork as one of its thematic centers, the play is very much ensemble oriented, and the cast is uniformly engaging, offering a variety of stereotype-avoiding portrayals. Even so, Kailey Rhodes shines brightest as #46 (the characters almost always refer to each other by jersey number, not name), the team’s socially maladroit but athletically skilled newcomer, her expressions speaking volume about the painful challenges of fitting in. 

It’s a wonderful show. Catch it if you can.


I neglected to catch The Dope Elf when it was presented for two weekends last month, both onstage at Yale Union and livestreamed to the art center’s website. So, sorry, I can’t tell you if this “non-narrative…investigation into present, ancestral, and imagined experience” concerns an elf that is stupid, an elf that is stylish in a 1990s hip-hop kind of way, or, possibly, no elf at all. In any case, this work by interdisciplinary artist/writer Asher Hartman and his Gawdafful National Theater completes its Portland run with another three-performance cycle this weekend. 

Best line I read this week

“‘Why did Shakespeare never write a play about Merlin?’ said Henrietta.

‘Because Shakespeare was Merlin,’ said Uncle Theo.”

— from the novel The Nice and the Good, by Iris Murdoch


That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time. 

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