Perusing the list of plays at this year’s Colorado Shakespeare Festival (CSF), a purist might be a bit nonplussed. Out of five total plays, the bard penned only two, Twelfth Night and Richard III, putting Shakespeare’s work firmly in the minority at his own festival. Deeper examination reveals, however, that a third play, though not written by the man himself, deals solely with his plays and, thus, nudges the Shakes-to-non- Shakes ratio over the 50 percent mark.
An ambitious project, Women of Will examines Shakespeare’s evolution as a writer through the prism of his female characters. It is not one play but actually five distinct plays that span Shakespeare’s entire folio in chronological order. This is only the third time that the full, five-play cycle has been performed together, and after seeing Part 1, I sincerely hope that some dutiful theatre-goers take in the complete series. Creator and co-star Tina Packer has obviously devoted much time, thought and passion to this pursuit.
For the many who will likely only partake of one of the five plays, they are: “Part 1: The Warrior Women, from Violence to Negotiation”; “Part 2: The Sexual Merges with the Spiritual: New Knowledge”; “Part 3: Living Underground or Dying to Tell the Truth”; “Part 4: Chaos Has Come Again, The Lion Eats the Wolf ”; and “Part 5: The Maiden Phoenix: The Daughter Redeems the Father.”
Packer is joined onstage by Nigel Gore. There is no set to speak of. In fact, at least for now, Packer and Gore perform with the CSF’s Noises Off set in the background, which conveniently allows them some vertical variety as they enact various illustrative scenes from Shakespeare’s work. Props and costumes are de minimis as well. In Part 1, the donning of a couple of wigs and later a frock are about the only costume changes, and a few swords and daggers, along with a belt, comprise the props.
The spare production design worked for me, as it allowed the audience to remain fully focused on the acting and commentary flowing forth from the stage. Packer poses a question or sets up a scenario related to one of Will’s women, and then she and Gore act out a relevant scene. They play some scenes multiple times using different interpretations and acting styles to prove various points. In Part 1, the lion’s share of scenes comes from Henry VI, The Taming of the Shrew and Richard III.
Packer and Gore are both gifted actors, and watching them slip effortlessly into character after character was a pure pleasure. Whether playing one of Will’s demure, virginal types or one of his more bloodlusty, powerful ones, Packer nails it. Gore, who impressed me mightily in Richard III, is also pitch-perfect in every role. The depth of the relationship between the two is also apparent inter-scene as they comfortably chat with one another and the audience. A few of these asides were truly some of the best moments in the show.
At one point, Packer polls the audience about whether it is appropriate, under very specific circumstances, for a woman to use sex to survive or, more generally, to gain power. In both her and Nigel’s opinions — and in the opinion of a significant portion of the audience that evening — it is. Nigel then shared an amusing anecdote in which his 22-year-old daughter firmly disagreed on that point. That unscripted moment became a talking point for my guest and I after the show.
Women of Will might be termed a performance-enhanced lecture series, but in all honesty, it is light on the lecture and heavy on the performance, which is welcome. Still, Packer and Gore succeed in communicating the ideas and, as importantly, the questions that underlie this labor of love. Women of Will is not fit merely for women’s studies majors or Shakespeare scholars. It plunges deeper and has much to say about the relationship between men and women both in Shakespeare’s time and today.