Women of Will
Fifteen plus years in the making, "Women of Will" is Tina Packer’s groundbreaking exploration of Shakespeare’s canon through the eyes of his female characters. The piece chronologically focuses on his more strong-minded women from the heroic Queen Margot in "Henry VI" and "Richard III" to Beatrice in "Much Ado..." and Viola in "Twelfth Night." Packer’s undertaking augurs a fresh, and possibly unique perspective on the art and psyche of the greatest English language playwright.
"Women of Will"’s lofty aim is a scholarly deconstruction. One of the first things Packer explains is the triple-layered meaning to her title. First there is the reference to the playwright, obvious. In the second construction, "Will" refers to will power. Packer asks the audience to be aware of the use of power in the plays, through force, psychology, and moral persuasion, a.k.a. feminine wiles.
The third meaning refers to an archaic definition of "Will" as sexual desire and sensuality. Packer urges her listeners to discover anew the Bard’s language as it uses sexual terms to express spirituality and spiritual words to express sexual desire.
This presentation by Ms. Packer is for insiders-- Shakespeare scholars, buffs, theatre professionals and Tina Packer fans -- but probably not for a general audience. At the least one would caution the average theatregoer that it might be a challenge to sit through.
The lecture, in spite the dramatic illustrations wrought by Packer and her collaborator Nigel Gore, is starchier that an IHOP pancake; a positive gut bomb of textual analysis that may be a bit much even for a diehard fan to digest.
Nevertheless, the event is interesting both for Packer’s breadth of knowledge and the intellectual swagger she wields to support her thesis. That thesis, offered at the top of the show (it’s that formal) is that Shakespeare’s female characters evolved over his creative lifespan. To explore this theory she uses the artifice of categorization. She separates his plays into five sections and assigns rubrics with subheadings.
After Mr. Gore cheekily introduces himself "I come bearing testosterone," the two Shakespeareans act out the submission scene from "The Taming of the Shrew." It is a turning point when Petruchio bends the combative Kate to his will and wherein she finally agrees that the sun is the moon.
Packer offers an analysis of the monologue that Kate speaks to Petruchio and suggests an alternative reading of Kate; after being starved, confined, and undermined -- that she might be a psychotic, a flirt or a depressive. Packer repeats the monologue three times in those alternate moods. Packer’s skill is impressive but you feel as though you’re attending an acting class.
One of the specimens Packer sections in this almost three-hour exegesis of Shakespeare’s feminine characters is "Richard III," extracting that play’s Queen Margot from her context and championing her as an alleged badass. Packer’s method divides the early plays’ female characters into virgins and viragos.
Queen Margot is in the latter category for killing the youngest child of the treacherous Duke of York in "Henry VI," and foiling Richard III’s machinations to ascend to the throne of England, in the subsequent eponymous play.
With the bare set, the scaffolding erected around the walls of the gym and some spare set furnishings, one cannot quite shake the feeling of watching a rehearsal. Process is the meat of creation but it is usually not offered as the main dish.
Packer’s business, it seems, is a fresh analysis that could rival (and counterpunch) anything uttered by Harold Bloom. This is a welcome and necessary tonic to Bloomian cant since the man is emphatic in his distaste for a feminist interpretation of Shakespeare’s heroines.
I was disappointed in this show. I expected an interesting well-knit theatrical experience. Instead, it is something else entirely. What that something else is -- lecture with live reenactments, a scholarly presentation, a master acting class -- is in the eyes of the beholder.
Directed by Eric Tucker with Scenic and Costume Design By Valerie Bart, Lighting by Les Dickert, Sound Design By Daniel Kluger. Katie Younger is Production Stage Manager.
"Women of Will" runs through June 2 at The Gym at Judson Church, 243 Thompson Street at Washington Square South. For info or tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit www.womenofwill.com.