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Women of Will

Tina Packer's Women of Will isn't a show so much as a thesis defense with live visual aids. Presented this past weekend as a fundraiser for LA Women's Shakespeare Company, Women of Will is the two-and-a-half-hour version of Packer's complete work on the subject, which is a five-night-long event.

The idea here is that Packer has separated Shakespeare's plays chronologically into five different parts. In each era, Packer posits that Shakespeare has a different view of women—which she then illustrates with an excerpt from a play or two from that particular chapter of Shakespeare's writing. (Packer plays the female roles; she's joined by Nigel Gore, who enters on the immortal line, "I come bearing testosterone.") Obviously, Packer goes rather more in-depth in the five-night version, so there's a bit of selectivity going on in the condensed show that played the Kirk Douglas.

The show is at its best when Packer gets a bit creative with the material. Perhaps the very best bit is at the beginning, when she plays a speech from Taming of the Shrew (the "fully tamed" bit at the end—the one that modern directors tend to do their best to sanitize, as nobody really likes to see Kate completely submissive). Packer reads it three different ways, and each one rings true. Admittedly, it stops Shrew from being a comedy, but Packer is asking her audience to envision how Kate would really react to a Petruchio who is physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive to her. Gore here is a brutal Petruchio, and Packer's Kate reacts accordingly. It's very nearly painful to watch, but it's a set of interpretations we rarely see, and it's quite an attention-getter.

Compare this with the segment in which Packer and Gore do a ten-minute, two-person Macbeth. There's nothing new here, and, with the entire play compressed into ten minutes, neither Packer nor Gore has time to really create a journey for their character. The performance is wholly unmemorable—what is memorable is Packer's discussion of parallels between Macbeth and Coriolanus which precedes it. Packer has an interesting idea about what, in Shakespeare's eyes, is the result of a woman becoming as goal driven as a stereotypical man. Further discussion of that point would have been much more welcome than a fairly routine Macbeth excerpt. Nor is the portrayal of Romeo and Juliet's balcony scene much more than a demonstration of how much Shakespeare's writing itself had matured, when compared to his earlier plays. In terms of forwarding Packer's point, or entertaining with stellar performances, it comes up a bit short.

Other excerpts demonstrate Packer's points and show off her skill. Two excerpts from Henry VI, part 3—Margaret taunting York before killing him and Elizabeth approaching Edward to obtain return of her husband's escheated lands—neatly demonstrate the ways in which Shakespeare's women could use their somewhat limited powers to obtain their ends. The former is a scorching performance (Packer's payback, one imagines, for the humiliation she endured in the Shrew excerpts); the latter a beautiful example of acting the subtext rather than the text.

There is no doubt that Packer and Gore are talented, even less doubt that Packer has put a lifetime of study into Shakespeare and has much to teach. But when all was said and done, I left Women of Will thinking more about what Packer had said than what she had performed. Well, that and the indelible image of Gore's Petruchio with his belt around Packer's neck, dragging her by this noose as her Kate meekly directs the women in the audience to obey their husbands.

Women of Will Written by Tina Packer; Directed by Eric Tucker; Starring Tina Packer & Nigel Gore. The production played the Kirk Douglas Theatre on March 5 and 6, 2011, as a benefit performance to benefit Los Angeles Womens' Shakespeare Company.


- Sharon Perlmutter






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