Friday, October 14, 2011

Tina Packer: A Force of Nature

As the father of two grown daughters, I see the world differently than I did 27 years ago, before my real life began. Last night, my wife and I celebrated our 27th wedding anniversary at the opening night of Tina Packer’s “Women of Will” at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is a tour de force created by a force of nature (Packer), and it challenged me to think about a woman’s life, loves, and work in ways I don’t often think. If nothing else, maybe it will make me a better father and husband for the next 27 years, or whatever portion of 27 years God gives me to live.

“Women of Will” also made me wish I knew Shakespeare better. Packer is the esteemed founding director of Shakespeare & Company, based in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts. She came to the USA from her native England in 1970 to develop a theater that “merged the power suits of British actors and American actors: the spoken word and the physical body.” Given the name of her company, which she still oversees, and her longevity, Packer has directed—and played nearly all the plum female roles in—every play in the Shakespeare canon, give or take a part of Henry VI. She has lived her passion for over 40 years, which is good enough reason to listen to anyone, it seems to me, especially when that passion is The Bard. She wears her wisdom well.

Some 20 years ago, Packer began developing an overview of the women in Shakespeare’s plays and, with the help of a Guggenheim grant, developed “Women of Will.” The three-hour piece we saw last night (it was a bit long) was merely the “Overview” of the five-part “Complete Journey”—five nights of theater, each devoted to one of the five developmental stages in Shakespeare’s writing, in which roles for women evolve as Shakespeare’s own understanding evolved. (Do the math: Packer has developed 12–15 hours of material on Shakespearean women.) Each of the pieces is a combination of scenes, monologues, and commentary, which Packer delivers with the able help of her courageous male foil, actor Nigel Gore. The work is directed by Eric Tucker. Over three hours last evening we were treated to scenes from, and commentary on, The Taming of the Shrew, Henry VI, part 1; Romeo and Juliet; Julius Caesar; As You Like It; Othello; Macbeth; and Pericles, Prince of Tyre.

I am not qualified to pronounce on Shakespeare’s plays or their interpretation. But I have some thoughts about what I saw:
  • “Women of Will,” a triple entendre, is both brilliant and limiting. Packer explains in her opening commentary: Will is Shakespeare’s name; it is a moral force; and in Shakespeare’s time, will also referred to sexual organs. (Read Sonnet 135 if you don’t believe me.) Stoutly declaring herself a feminist, Packer develops a theory of womanhood and Shakespeare that plays out on two axes, power and sex. There is a depth to Packer’s very being on display from instant to instant, and I don’t mean to limit her. But when she comes to speak of the character of Joan of Arc in Henry VI, part 1, she says that Shakespeare “did not know what to do with her.” If you looked at Joan through the lenses of power and sex, placed end to end, I imagine that you wouldn’t know what to do with her either. 
  • And what about another kind of will, one that might have interested a Catholic Shakespeare? What about Mary, the Blessed Mother, whose fiat blended her will with a higher? Where does Mary stand on the Cartesian grid of power and sex? Or does she hover above it?
  • Starting out the evening with Petruchio leading Kate around by a horse collar in Taming of the Shrew is just the sort of thing to grab the attention of a Cambridge audience, especially the gender-neutral collection of intelligentsia who attended last night. I wasted many mental minutes wondering if the person across the aisle from me was L, G, B, or T. That nose, that chin, those shoulders. . . .   
  • Henry VI (with its Joan) and Pericles, Prince of Tyre are two plays I want to study now that I’ve seen “Women of Will”—Henry because of Joan, one of the saints who hooked me on the Catholic Church. Any angel-answering woman warrior who captures the attention of Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, and William Shakespeare deserves further study. As for Pericles, which closed the evening, it is a father-and-daughter reunion story, one of those improbable fantasies in which, not only do dad and daughter find one another in Act V, but mom turns out to be a nun next door.
As we left the theater three hours wiser, my wife made the first comment. She said our older daughter, now studying to be an actor in New York, would love “Women of Will.” As often happens, Katie’s comment brought me back to earth—to the women (of strong will indeed) with whom I most intimately share the planet. I smiled.

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