It's wonderful to discuss Shakespeare with someone as intelligent, insightful and, above all, passionate as Tina Packer, who brings her Women of Will: The Overview to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival this weekend. Packer, who led Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts for three decades, talks about Shakespeare with reverence, but also as if he and she chatted nightly over beers. She knows the works backwards and forwards, loves them and makes them her own.
Women of Will is an examination of Shakespeare's understanding of women and the growing sophistication of that understanding. In between acting out key scenes, Packer and her partner, Nigel Gore, talk about their significance and also about their own reactions as actors.
Last year Women of Will was presented in five parts (read our review here); this year the insights are condensed into one piece. "What we do is the big money scene from each of the five nights," Packer says. "It's quite an adventure. We're leaping from mountain top to mountain top, and I tell the story between the parts as fast as I can."
The evening includes a comparison between Othello and As You Like It: "We're going backwards and forwards, slicing the two plays into sections so you can see how Desdemona meets the vicissitudes of her life and compare that with Rosalind's story. One stays in her frock; one dons pants." The purity of passive, loving Desdemona leads to her murder; by contrast, Rosalind controls the action of As You Like It, and wins her love on her own terms.
Women of Will includes the blessing of Archbishop Cranmer over the baby Elizabeth in Henry VIII, which Packer sees as Shakespeare's blessing over the feminine spirit: "In her days every man shall eat in safety,/ Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing/ The merry songs of peace to all his neighbors:/ God shall be truly known ... / Nor shall this peace sleep with her: but as when/ The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,/ Her ashes new create another heir,/ As great in admiration as herself ... "
Since there is so much material, "I had to be simpler in my distillation," Packer says. "You get that there's inner power and outer power -- women who can change things through the power of who they are and women who have to take up the sword -- but it's too much information for the audience. Me being over-particular with my own narrative was an indulgence. Nigel always keeps an eye on this stuff. He says, 'They're getting bored, Tina.' He's very good at giving me feedback in the way that I can hear it."
"I always joke about being the token male," says Gore, "but my role is far deeper than that. As we rehearsed and as the show grew, I became an everyman voice. My role is to present varying shades of the male perspective, from sexist and ignorant to fairly well-reconstructed father. I love the show. And I believe in the message -- about parity, and working together. Parity is the most important thing. We need to come together, male and female, as equals if we're going to make any seismic shift in the world."
Packer and Gore recently performed Women of Will in New York and Prague, and will be going to Mexico and the Hague in the fall. "What surprised me in Prague was how young the audience was," Packer says. "They would stay behind and talk to us in the pub downstairs; they were really interested in the material itself: I want to understand this point or what's happening here, more than I want to talk to you because you're a well-known actor. Theater is cheap there, so people go to the theater all the time, and their sense of their own history is acute. The sense of the journey in the plays.... They have a great sense of journey in Prague. They lived under the Nazis and the Communists, and Vaclav Havel, a playwright, led the revolution. The artists were in the thick of it. They're very proud of this heritage."
She herself is proud of the work of Shakespeare & Company, which "has a huge schools program," she notes. "They send a six or seven-person play out on the road; all the schools do a Shakespeare play and they show the plays to each other. There are workshops for teachers, for kids who are in trouble with the law; there are elementary and middle school productions. We have a youth theater in the summer, summer camps. We train actors on how to train in the schools. We have young people all over Shakespeare & Company. They learn to be theater goers. I think every Shakespeare company needs to do that."
Women of Will will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 12, and again at 1 p.m. Saturday, July 13, at University Theater, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554. Tickets are $10 to $57; for more information, go to coloradoshakes.org.
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