Consider Marina – saved by pirates, who then sell her into a brothel, “but she had such a healing spirit that she convinced every man not to have sex with her,” Tina Packer says to us, greatly amused, near the end of “Women of Will,” a fascinating if flawed work of theater about Shakespeare’s female characters, created and performed by a woman who has been studying them for decades – and is, incredibly, making her New York stage debut.
Marina, the daughter of the title character in “Pericles,” is one of the women in Stage 5 of Shakespeare’s evolution. It is Packer’s thesis that the Bard viewed women differently at the beginning of his 25-year career as a playwright than at the end, that his views can be divided into five phases, and that by tracking his changing attitude, one can learn something profound about Shakespeare and his plays.
“Women of Will” takes us through each of the phases chronologically, with Packer and the actor Nigel Gore threading scenes from the Bard’s plays with Packer’s observations and insights, often presented playfully as banter.
The Bard’s Women Stage 1 – Women As Either Warriors or Virgins
We begin with a scene between Petruchio and Katharine in “Taming of the Shrew” – performed several times with Katharine behaving differently — submissive, kittenish, defeated.
The very first female character that Shakespeare wrote for the stage, Packer says, was Joan of Arc, in Henry VI, Part 1, and we’re treated to a scene here too.
The Bard’s Women Stage 2 – The Merging of the Sexual AND Spiritual
Parker and Gore present the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet
The Bard’s Women Stage 3 – “Living Underground or Dying to Tell The Truth”
The performers give us a clever mashup of scenes from “Othello” (Desdemona and Othello) and “As You Like It” (Rosalind and Orlando) — the point being that the girly-girls in dresses were prevented from speaking, and ended up dead. It was only the women who wore the pants – disguised themselves as men, acted “like men” – who were given a voice, survived and thrived.
The Bard’s Women Stage 4 – Chaos, Women as Power-Hungry As Men
Packer senses a bad period in Shakespeare’s life. The murderous collage with Lady Macbeth is a highlight of the show.
The Bard’s Women Stage 5 – The Female Phoenix. The Healing Daughter
In this last phase of Shakespeare’s life, at a time when Packer says he had returned to Stratford and was living with his daughters, he turns to fanciful works of mythology like “The Tempest,” and we are treated to scenes from Pericles and the very last scene in which Shakespeare wrote about a woman, in “Henry VIII.”
I can’t say I completely buy, or even fully understand, Tina Packer’s thesis. I also don’t think anybody could mistake Packer’s performances for, say, Judi Dench’s, another septuagenarian who would probably have an easier time convincing us she is a teenager in love. Still, the scenes are often compelling, helped by dramatic lighting by Les Dickert and mood-setting music and sound by Daniel Kluger. Packer clearly knows what she’s doing. A British-born former associate artist with the Royal Shakespeare Company, she founded the Shakespeare & Company festival in Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1978, and has performed in or directed virtually every one of Shakespeare’s plays. She even wrote a book, with a Columbia Business School professor, entitled “Power Plays: Shakespeare’s Lessons in Leadership & Management.” She has spent the past 15 years putting together “Women of Will.” What she offers, even more than her knowledge or her talent, is her enthusiasm.
The performance I saw of “Women of Will,” two and a half hours long, is just the “overview” version. Starting in April, the overview will alternate with “Women of Will: The Complete Journey,” five separate parts spread out over a long weekend.
Women of Will
Judson Memorial Church, 243 Thompson Street
By Tina Packer
Directed by Eric Tucker; sets and costumes by Valérie Thérèse Bart; lighting by Les Dickert; sound by Daniel Kluger
Cast: Tina Packer and Nigel Gore.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.
“Women of Will” is scheduled to run through June 2.