June 2, 2011 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall.
The summer 2011 schedule at Shakespeare and Company features Women of Will, which is such a dynamic and engrossing theatrical experience that it seems one must review it only briefly with superlatives for author Tina Packer’s concept in creating it and a listing of the wide ranging ground it covers-scenes in which she, supported by Nigel Gore, brings the numerous characters involved to life.
Or, one may attempt, as I shall, in a longer piece, to explain the theatrical ground it covers and how well it all works. Be forewarned.
Among the many hats my eldest son wears is that of an Equity actor, one he earned in a long-ago summer at the BTF. Although these days he is mainly busy trying to become King of Kindle by getting his many hard cover books onto the Net, his love of Shakespearian theatre brings him often from NYC to the Berkshires (where in 1960 he played Lysander in an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the terraces of a Lenox estate, then a boarding school.)
As we drove home from the performance, his first comment concerned how, despite years of studying Shakespeare, acting Shakespeare, and viewing the plays in many theatre settings, he had never before had the opportunity of seeing staged the Joan of Arc scenes, from the early War of the Roses cycle, performed, and was delighted with how movingly we had just seen them played, and how wonderful it had been to experience them. How powerful they had been and what a useful opening to his understanding of what Tina Packer was to unfold for us as the evening proceeded.
And in deed it was!
For years the talented and dedicated Packer has been living with her dream of dedication to the Bard-a five part journey covering all his plays created from 1588 until his retirement in 1613. The five parts of Packer’s journey thus begin with the neophyte Shakespeare (oh so talented even then but still groping for expression) and expressing through the plays the attitude of the period in which he was living, to roles women played in the period in which they lived, and how they were perceived in the male world.
His Joan La Pucelle scenes are is the ones in which Shakespeare’s audiences in his Henry VI cycle of histories produced in 1589-90, would have delighted. because they so clearly fit their attitude to the period. Joan in our world has been granted sainthood. And in contemporary drama Shaw has paid her wry homage and Anouilh written so poetically and sympathetically in “The Lark”.
Shakespeare’s Joan is a magnificent character to show us Tina’s thesis. Her chronological journey thru the scenes in which Joan appears deal with Elizabethan attitudes toward the role she attempted to play and how she was forced, as a woman, daring to take part in a man’s world, to be destroyed.
In this opening play of Tina’s 5 part series-The Warrior Woman, from violence to negotiation, not only do we encounter Joan, but also Kate, a shrew who must be tamed, and Margaret of Anjou, who audaciously wanted the throne of England -each a vibrant and passionate woman who lost in fighting for her will in a man’s world.
Skillfully designed and played by Packer and her wry and as written dominating partner, Nigel Gore, these scenes are woven into a self-contained evening-one that surprisingly includes the scene from the War of the Roses in which Gore as dominating male Rutland has his tragic moment, the news of the death of his son, in which he can act dynamically and show us how briefly even the “inferior ” sex could at times wound, if not trumph.
In these scenes and the others in Part I, the women struggle as warriors from violence to negotiation. And even if one does not know the entire play, Tina’s intent and Shakespeare’s attitude are easy to follow since between each scene is a dialog with the audience that pulls us into the intent of both Tina and of what she finds in that of Shakespeare. Gore assists her, often with physical business and stage movement in the audience contact scenes. The attitude of both actors toward the audience is warm and friendly as well as serious, informative and at times joking.
While as planned Woman of Will spans in chronological order the entire ouvre of Shakespeare, in each case dominated by a theme concerning the position of women in the environment of the play, and gradually showing how it shifts.
The complete journey through the plays is divided into 5 cycles, each lasting about two hours, performed on different evenings. One can pick and choose if unable to see all five performances.
The chronological material is divided thus:
- Part I. Warrior Woman-From Violence to Nightmare (low expectations for women in a man’s world)
- Part II. New Knowledge-The Sexual Merges with the Spiritual (Shakespeare sees sexuality can be a spiritual journey as plays considered range from Romeo and Juliet ro Troilus and Cresida and are as merry as Midsummer Nights Dream and as dark as Measure for Measure or Antony and Cleo.
- Part III. Living Underground – Or, Dying to Tell the Truth – (Middle period in Shakespeare, if these women stay dressed as women they go mad or die -plays range from As You Like it to Hamlet.
- Part IV. Chaos Come Again, the Lion Eats the Wolf (Shakespeare’s period of despair at what happens when women want a different voice in society. Disaster follows in Macbeth and Lear and others.
- Part V. Maiden Phoenix – Or, The Daughter Redeems the Father. (Shakespeare changes his story and turns to myth and fairy tales in the Four Romances:; Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, plays in which the daughters discover the ways to save the situation, usually in relation to the father.
If this sounds complex, it is not so in performance, based on the presentation of Part I which this reviewer found an amazing journey through the early plays which so well expressed the views of the man and the plays and the gradually changing view of women that are expressed in them.
One not only is entertained by a fast paced, information packed, and expertly presented two hours of theatre, but delighted with the subtle and competent presentation of the actors. Packer and Gore work seamlessly together. It is a performance you will long remember. I know one small thing that I will never forget. As Joan, Packer’s facial expression, very clear from my seat, changed so from her first buoyant moment when she entered happy, with the aid of heaven, to serve her country, to the snarling, suddenly older woman, unsympathetic and ugly under English captivity. Of such small moments are remembered ones often granted us.
Woman of Will works on many levels-any amount of Shakespeare experience is enough to gain much from this one.
Credits go also to Director Eric Tucker who has guided his actors well, to Govane Lohbauer for designing costumes that served all scenes with an addition here or a subtraction there, to set designer Patrick Brennan whose seemingly bare stage could become anywhere and did. A tall bare ladder served eloquently.
This play goes off on tour in the Fall. We are fortunate to have it in Lenox now.