'Tina Packer's Women of Will': Shakespeare's female characters in the spotlight

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As subjective as art is, a few truths can be agreed upon: Shakespeare remains essential and those who understand and re-enact his works are important.

Tina Packer (the original "Dr. Who"), who has devoted a lifetime to Shakespeare, is more than important; she is a master. She has directed most of Shakespeare's plays, built Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., and has acted in many of his plays. She has lectured extensively on his canon at Harvard, M.I.T. and NYU.

And it is at NYU, in the Gym at Judson, a basement theater where her creation, "Tina Packer's Women of Will" opened Sunday (Feb. 3).

Here, she plays a variety of the women of Shakespeare and her well-matched counter, Nigel Gore, plays the men. They are top-notch, learned and spot-on. That is when they stick to the bard's lines. When they do, a spell is cast, as it is whenever Shakespeare is done by those who know how.

Packer, a thoughtful and smart feminist, has examined Shakespeare and aims to show the audience how Shakespeare evolved, concerning his female characters. To argue with her would be folly. Packer knows what she is talking about, and she knows how to explain it, so her aim is true.

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However that does not make this a good night of theater. Though it pains me to say this, the nearly three hours felt even longer. In between scenes, Packer explains what is happening and why, how Shakespeare changed over the years.

As charming as Packer is, and she truly is, her explanations and their banter break the flow so much it's disconcerting. The actors are quite adept at jumping into and out of the characters from "Much Ado About Nothing" to "Twelfth Night," but it is more difficult for the audience to abruptly switch gears so often.

In between her explanations, they bring scenes to life on a minimalist set just with a table, a chair, a sword, a couple of robes. Occasionally, they pick an audience member to sit on a chair on stage, and one was picked to perform a ceremony, repeating after them.

When the crowd thinned after intermission, it was understandable. Even serious theater patrons -- who else would go to a play about the women of Shakespeare on a rainy night in Greenwich Village? -- had their fill.

Packer's years of lecturing and her breadth of knowledge are obvious. I would love to see her in a play. This, though, feels much more like a weekend workshop for graduate students of theater. And that is a most wonderful venture, but it is not a play for everyone. 

Photo/Video credit: Matthew Murphy