July was National Ice Cream Month, National Baked Beans Month, and National Hitchhiking Month.
It was also, for me, a month of Shakespeare.
It started and ended with “Women of Will,” the remarkable five-part series written by Tina Packer and performed by Packer and Nigel Gore. Packer is the founder of Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts and was artistic director there until she stepped down to focus on developing this play.
In “Women of Will,” Packer surveys Shakespeare’s entire body of work in roughly chronological order from the perspective of the female characters.
The title is a play on words that would make Shakespeare proud: it refers, of course, to Shakespeare’s women; also, as Packer puts it, “the will to power,” which by the end of the series I came to see as both a woman’s desire for power and her means of getting it in a world not designed for her to have it, and a woman’s ability to speak with conviction to the men who do have power; and finally, “will” in Renaissance times referred to sex.
Each performance consisted of Packer talking to the audience intermixed with scenes of varying length from the plays. The exchanges between the two actors were often spontaneous and improvised. The energy spilling off the stage was electric.
I won’t give away any of the surprises (in case you get to see them when they bring it to New York early next year), but several of the plays were done in ways you have never seen before, providing new insights. Whenever the actors played multiple characters in one scene, the results were delightful. Gore’s “Othello,” filling the theater with his palpable rage, left me shaking. Their condensed “Macbeth” — distilling the essence of the play into 45 minutes — was by far the best I’ve ever seen, a heady mix of superb acting, haunting sound, and chilling lighting effects that forced the audience into participation with the royal couple’s descent into evil and madness. By the “out damn’d spot” scene, Packer was unidentifiable, a gargoyle, a demon on stage.
I wish every student fighting through “Romeo and Juliet” could witness this. To every kid who thinks that Shakespeare is stupid and irrelevant and useless, I would answer, “This!” Because in these plays and in these performances lie all the questions and all the possibilities for answers.
In this marvelous month, I also saw the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s “Twelfth Night,” one of my favorite comedies, with my favorite CSF actor, Geoffrey Kent, in the role of Orsino. The director, CSF artistic director Philip Sneed, made a surprising choice with Orsino and Viola/Cesario that delighted me, as it’s something I’ve always seen in the play but never in a production.
Later that same week, I attended “Richard III” directed by Tina Packer and starring Nigel Gore. As a student of medieval history, I have such a hard time with Shakespeare’s history plays because factually, there’s just so much wrong with them, but, oh, “Richard III” is a marvelous creation. Gore’s Richard was so powerful, so seductive, so wonderfully wicked, such a presence on stage. Not surprisingly, in Packer’s interpretation the women were powerful foils for him.
Finally, last Sunday, I collected (coerced?) a large group of friends and neighbors to join my family at the Longmont Theater Company’s Taste Of Shakespeare’s production of “The Taming of the Shrew” which they’ve called “UnTamed” and set in modern day Seattle. The performance was free in a local park, and we all brought food and wine and blankets, settling in for a good time. It was a typical Colorado summer afternoon: a little sunny, a little cloudy, a little breezy. By the time Petruchio and Katherina got married, it was pouring. In typical Colorado fashion, it ended within ten minutes and the actors got back to work, but for the final scenes, the actors were carrying umbrellas with them and everyone, actors and audience alike, were fighting giggles at the absurdity of performing in on-again, off-again rain.
What an amazing way to celebrate Anti-boredom Month!