Women of Will, by Tina Packer, The Nora Theatre Company, Central Square Theatre, 10/13/11- 11/6/11. http://www.centralsquaretheater.org/season/11-12/women-of-will.html
Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook
(Cambridge, MA) The female characters of Shakespeare’s plays are badly outnumbered by the males, sometimes fifteen to one, explains veteran thespian Tina Packer in Women of Will at the Central Square Theater. In the Bard’s works, women often operate as others and also-rans, virgins and whores, rarely receiving the main focus. But when they appear, their actions and emotions speak volumes, both about Shakespeare and society.
In Women of Will, Packer startles by putting the spotlight on the women of Shakespeare’s scripts. In a series of chapter-like shows or a one-night overview, Packer guides us through Shakespeare’s evolving females, who grow from shadowy projections at the beginning of his writing career to full-fledged spiritual beings. We also see through Packer that only those women in Shakespeare’s scripts who lie and hide to break free from societal norms can gain enough power to survive.
Women of Will isn’t a play, exactly. It’s a cross between a great college lecture and a wonderful “extras” feature on a DVD. Packer sets up each scene with a lively introduction and easy-going banter with her scene partner, the charismatic Nigel Gore. To keep the evening from being merely an academic exercise, Packer and Gore maintain an improvisational spirit and even pull audience members into key scenes.
Packer’s commentary and pitch-perfect scene selection draws the audience into the plays. The highlight of the evening is the striking juxtaposition between Rosalind, the cross-dressing heroine of As You Like It, and the doomed Desdemona from Othello. The former breaks all the rules to gain freedom and the love of her life, while the latter tells the truth and stays true to societal norms, even when being strangled by a jealous lover.
The structure in the overview doesn’t always work. Packer seems too wise to truly internalize the blushing neophytes who are the love interests in some of the plays. And Shakespeare’s female protagonists cease to evolve in his fairy-tale latter works, like Persepolis. But by then, Packer already has given the crowd enough to ponder for the evening.
The real jewel of the performance is watching Packer and Gore work together, both in character and out. They are veterans who know how to listen and move in union during the delicate act of scene creation. It’s touching watching Gore be careful with Packer’s body even during the most violent scenes. to ensure his scene partner can act without injury. Although Packer chooses the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet to show Shakespeare’s yearning for spiritual equality in a loving relationship, perhaps it is the spirit of equanimity between the two actors that best illustrates it.
Every daughter and every parent of a daughter should see this play. While the texts are ancient, the issues raised by Packer, unfortunately, are not. Not when the rules of femininity found in Elizabethan England are still the norm for most women in the world today. Not, as Packer mentions, when hundreds of murders are committed each year in the U.S. against women in the name of family honor.
Women today face the same choices as they did in Shakespeare’s time: Play by the rules or break them; either way, there will be consequences.