summer arts | theater

Tina Packer’s ‘Will’ power

What a piece of work is a woman? Actress explores Shakespeare’s female roles.

Tina Packer in Shakespeare & Company's 2008 'Hamlet.' In 'Women of Will,' Packer plays a range of female roles. Tina Packer in Shakespeare & Company's 2008 "Hamlet." In "Women of Will," Packer plays a range of female roles. (Photo by Kevin Sprague)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / May 23, 2010

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LENOX — When Tina Packer steps onstage at Shakespeare & Company this summer in “Women of Will,’’ she’ll be doing more than performing scenes and talking about the feminine principle in Shakespeare’s plays. In a sense, she’ll be offering a summation of her life’s work, a life immersed in Shakespeare and his meanings for us.

“I’m obviously trying to connect my life together,’’ she says with a laugh, taking a break from rehearsing the world premiere of Joan Ackermann’s “The Taster,’’ another summer project she’s directing. It’s a show focusing on Shakespeare’s women, directed by Eric Tucker and featuring Nigel Gore (and John Douglas Thompson in a longer version at summer’s end) along with Packer.

She performed the piece last year in England, which took her back to her roots. But she started working on it in earnest 15 years ago, when she received a Guggenheim grant and a Bunting fellowship to develop it. Since then it has sometimes taken a back seat to her role as a director, performer, and artistic director — but now that she’s handed that final job over to Tony Simotes, she has finally had time to polish “Women of Will.’’

She’s still not sure how to describe it, though: “Is it a symposium? A lecture-demonstration? A lecture-embodiment?’’ She begins by performing a range of female roles, then spends about half the time talking about women in Shakespeare and the other half performing selected speeches to illustrate her themes — notably Shakespeare’s exploration of Western civilization’s division between body and soul, and his attempts to reconcile these corporeal and spiritual halves into a fully human whole.

The work is divided into five sections, more or less chronological, that trace what she calls “the quite decided development over the canon’’ of Shakespeare’s female characters, from the earlier “warrior women,’’ who fight and love as fiercely as men but are less fully fleshed than the later characters, through the women “living underground’’ who must disguise their sexuality or perish, and on to the daughters in the late plays, who redeem their fathers with love, as Cordelia does Lear. Right now she’s trying to cut an “overview’’ version of the performance down to 2 1/2 hours, leaving some time for a question-and-answer session.

She’ll perform that version from May 28 through July 24. Then from Aug. 25 to 27 comes “Women of Will: The Complete Journey’’: each of the five parts expanded into a full performance, presented in a marathon over three days. If the first version is a delightful tasting menu for Shakespeare lovers, the second is a fanatic’s perfect feast.

In either version, the work, Packer says, “does a couple of things for me. First of all, it really makes me translate this stuff into my own body. And if I’m talking about the corporeal and the spiritual I need to do that. Second, it allows me to play all the parts I would have played if I hadn’t been bloody well doing this company!’’ Another hearty laugh. “It’s a chance to re-create myself.’’

For audiences, it’s a chance to engage deeply in the exploration of Shakespeare’s richness that is Packer’s lifelong passion. Any conversation with her about these plays and their characters delves into fascinating byways and ruminations, just as her performances — and the performances she elicits as a director — draw out nuances and details that feel fresh each time. To have both conversation and performance in a single evening, as audiences will for “Women of Will’’ — well, this is such stuff as dreams are made on.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at

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WOMEN OF WILL (May 28-July 24)

WOMEN OF WILL: The Complete Journey

(Aug. 25-27)

At: Shakespeare & Company, Lenox. 413-637-3353,


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