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Stage Review

With Shakespeare’s women, seeing is believing

By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / June 3, 2010

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LENOX — Tina Packer’s “Women of Will’’ is not exactly a play, but it is an intensely theatrical experience. Drawing on her lifetime of acting in and directing Shakespeare’s plays, Packer combines the performance of scenes with the discussion of themes to create a dazzling and illuminating piece of work. For anyone who cares about women, Shakespeare, or especially women in Shakespeare, it’s not to be missed.

Packer first delved into this project in the early 1990s, then put it aside for her work as artistic director of Shakespeare & Company. Now that she’s handed those reins to Tony Simotes, she has returned to this more personal work with a vengeance. For nearly three hours, she and her performing partner, Nigel Gore, hold the stage of the company’s Founders’ Theatre with no set, the merest suggestion of costumes, and a few props. At summer’s end, Packer will expand each of the five sections of this work into a separate full performance, for a marathon five-show event spread over three days.

That, like the book she hopes to write about Shakespeare’s women, promises to be a thoroughly revelatory examination of the ideas that engage her here. Already, though, “Women of Will’’ offers more food for thought, and more insightful moments of fine acting, than many a full-fledged Shakespeare production. Partly because Packer and Gore are so clearly at ease onstage together, and partly because the scenes they enact flow so seamlessly out of and into the remarks by Packer (and occasionally, often with a wicked gleam, the engaging Gore), “Women of Will’’ combines the visceral pleasure of great performances with the heady joys of great conversation.

That combination makes sense, for one of Packer’s central themes is the development, over the course of Shakespeare’s career, of his interest in merging the spiritual with the sexual — an interest that, Packer says, first emerged strongly in “Romeo and Juliet.’’ (Not coincidentally, she also calls Juliet his “great leap’’ from describing female characters to writing from within their psyches.) For Packer, Shakespeare’s women, particularly from Juliet on, constitute the literal embodiment of his ideas about society, humanity, and the role of the artist. In his women’s bodies, she argues persuasively, we can see Shakespeare’s mind.

What’s remarkable about the performances in “Women of Will’’ is how clearly they demonstrate this merging of body and spirit. As Packer freely admits, she’s too old to play many of Shakespeare’s women — and yet play them she does for this event, and with a complexity and depth of understanding that make each one of them come alive in fresh new ways.

No, Tina Packer is not a teenage girl, fallen desperately in love for the first time, but her Juliet, smiling shyly to herself as she strokes her cheek with the hand she’s pretending is Romeo’s, absolutely is. It’s not a question of lighting, or costumes, or even of any one gesture or girlish mannerism. It’s a matter of spirit: Like a conjurer, Packer summons the essence of Juliet’s girlhood, imagines it with all the power of her being, and in doing so brings it forth to us in her own mature body. Sweet, brave Juliet, like feisty Joan of Arc, ferocious Margaret of Anjou, gentle Marina, and all the others Packer portrays, reveals herself fully in this one performer’s form.

Such an assertion will no doubt irk critics who, refusing to accept the vision of a seductive older woman, found Packer far too old even for Cleopatra. Leaving aside the question of actual age (because they’re wrong, for one thing; Shakespeare clearly meant his Egyptian queen to be well on in years), what Packer showed us in “Antony and Cleopatra’’ she shows us again here: The body ages, but the spirit does not. And who we are, if we truly know who we are, comes through no matter what.

Ultimately, though, argument is beside the point in considering “Women of Will.’’ In the second act, for example, Packer gives a concise and clear summation of her ideas about what happens when Shakespeare’s women abandon the principle of the feminine, when they cross over to utter ruthlessness in defense of male power. But then she and Gore, in shadowy darkness, enact a swift and completely terrifying summary of the high points of “Macbeth.’’ You don’t need argument then. You see Lady Macbeth, and you know everything there is to know about her power, her darkness, and her despair.

Likewise, more description of the effect of this presentation won’t make you understand how powerful it is. What will? Seeing it for yourself. Now.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

WOMEN OF WILL By Tina Packer

Directed by: Eric Tucker. Lights, Les Dickert. Costumes, Govane Lohbauer. Sound, Michael Pfeiffer.

At: Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, through July 24. Tickets: $35-$45. 413-637-3353, www.shakespeare.org