A couple of minutes into Women of Will, Tina Packer’s smart and curiously seductive play/presentation at Portland Playhouse, a virile-looking fellow named Nigel Gore strides manfully onto the stage. “I come bearing testosterone,” he announces in a slightly puckish tone, and so he does.
Packer and Gore are the sole performers in Women of Will, a quickly shifting show that alternates between intimate scenework and speculative commentary on the nature of Shakespeare’s approach to his women characters – an approach that evolves from submissiveness and victimization in his early plays, such as The Taming of the Shrew and the Henry VI trilogy, to the fully engaged women of his late romances, such as Pericles and The Tempest, in which daughters help redeem their fathers. It is, Packer proposes early on, the story of the playwright’s own “enlightenment journey.”
But first, that testosterone. It’s on raw display in scenes from Shrew, in which Gore as Petruchio whips off his belt and roughly attaches it around the neck of Packer, who is playing Kate, dragging her about the stage like a dog or a mare: Kate, that fine ferocious spirit, broken to the bit. Yet another form of this unfettered manliness pops up in the second act as Gore, playing Othello, bellows in pain and self-obsessive passion at Desdemona, who despite her obvious intelligence and courage and even love has no protection against his rage. “Othello is a play about race, but it’s also a play about gender,” Packer comments, and in this sad and ghastly and strangely moving bed-and-murder scene that rings searingly true.
Packer, the British-born and -trained actor who founded and for many years led the highly regarded theater Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, and Gore, an actor whose Shakespearean and other classical credits are about a yard and a half long, have been performing Women of Will for the past decade, from Boston to L.A. to Colorado to the Czech Republic to New York. Yet for all that experience it still feels unsettled, in a good way – a continuing conversation, picked up from where it left off. It’s neither fish nor fowl, but a bestiary all its own. If you’re looking for a show to grab you up and take you to another world and set you down again, Women of Will might not be it: It can feel a bit like going for a country drive and stepping on the brakes every hundred yards or so to look at the foliage, just when you’re getting the feel of the road. But much of the enduring pleasure of Shakespeare springs from the complexity and argument and alternate possibilities of the plays, and for audiences eager to become part of the conversation, this is an exciting place to be: smack in the middle, trying to figure out what it all might mean.
Marty Hughley, in his smart preview for ArtsWatch, quotes Packer from a 2013 interview with Charlie Rose: “It’s really with Juliet he begins. That’s when you hear Shakespeare inside, if I can put it like that: embodying women as opposed to writing about women.” So we get a playful and accomplished Rosalind, pretending to Orlando in As You Like It; and a surprisingly self-aware and genuinely tragic Lady Macbeth in an interpretation that emphasizes the core goodness of the Macbeths that is rotted and corrupted in the course of the play.
And we get an emotionally revealing Juliet, a woman much more complex than the slip of a lovestruck girl we might be used to thinking of. Packer is 81 years old, and Gore carries more than a streak of gray in his hair, and for me one of the most revealing things about Women of Will is how, when they’re playing characters like Juliet and Romeo, that simply doesn’t matter. Both actors carry an astounding energy and a lifetime of accumulated skill with them on the stage: watching them digging into the heart of their scenework gives a hint of why performers such as Sarah Bernhardt were able to command Shakespearean roles of characters much younger than themselves well into their maturity: a great play picks up a fine actor and creates a fabulist universe in which mere chronology is secondary to the spinning of the tale. In the world of theater an old actor can convincingly play a young character and a young actor an older, although the latter is more difficult because the older actor has been young, but the younger actor hasn’t been old. We’ve largely lost this sense of agelessness, I think in part because of the tyranny of the camera, and in particular the motion-picture camera, which for all its wonders grounds us in the dictates and expectations of a physical reality rather than a symbolic one. Is it any wonder that so many older woman actors, in what might be the heights of their careers, instead can’t buy a role?
Women of Will abounds with questions, and any audience member is bound to have questions about the questions. My own preferred approach to The Taming of the Shrew, for instance, is to see Kate and Petruchio as kindred souls, taming each other, and creating in the process a witty private universe for themselves in which they present a conforming face to the traditionalist culture at large and enjoy a private equity and radical regard that amount to a mutual joke on the rest of the world. But I also understand Packer’s view of the relationship, and recognize the possibility that my own might be a product of wishful thinking, trying to twist the thing into acceptable modern shape. And I do prefer the much more plainly evolved relationship between the similarly bickering Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing – a love match that doesn’t require mental gymnastics to see as essentially modern and equal, in a culture that, unlike Shrew’s, actually values those things.
And the point isn’t so much to agree with every conclusion that Packer presents as to consider the possibilities. In the end, this seems more a play about exploring the implications of the Shakespearean universe as it pertains to women than it is a play about staking out territory. I’m more than good with that.
The performance I saw on Friday night was the overview, which takes material from each period of Shakespeare’s career, and that’s what most of the shows will be. But several performances instead will concentrate more deeply on specific aspects of the plays, giving you a chance to look more deeply at a narrower slice of Shakespeareana. Here, in the theater’s words, is what and when:
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.
Chaos Is Come Again, the Lion Eats the Wolf: Women desire the same power as men in society, with Macbeth as the exemplary play.
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 continues through Nov. 10 at Portland Playhouse, 602 N.E. Prescott St. Ticket and schedule information here.