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By DIEP TRAN
Shakespeare's had a grip on Tina Packer for her entire career. Decades ago, when she auditioned for England's Royal Shakespeare Company, she used one of Queen Margaret's speeches from Henry IV, Part III. Now she's performing that speech again in <i>Women of Will</i>, her comprehensive look at the women in Shakespeare's canon.
"I love doing [that speech] because of the range of emotion," explains the 74-year-old actress/playwright/director/Shakespeare scholar. "Even though she's taunting [the Duke of York] and being vicious, the truth of it is [that] that man should have been her husband, and she knows it."
Women of Will, which plays through May 26 at the Gym at Judson, is equal parts lecture, Shakespeare revue, and master class. There are two version of the show: a two and a half-hour "overview" and an eight-hour, five-part marathon. During the overview, Packer plays 10 women, and on alternate weekends, she undertakes the marathon, playing 25 women and four men.
"I couldn't have invented a better acting gig for myself!" Packer says. "I'm thinking, 'Oh god Tina, it's not just a mountain you've decided to climb, it's a bloody mountain range!'"
Consider the challenge in just the first part of the marathon: Packer and costar Nigel Gore tackle The Comedy of Errors, Richard III, Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, and all three parts of Henry IV. In between, they analyze the role of women within each play, studying Shakespeare's early treatment of the fairer sex.
Packer says the hardest part is falling quickly out of character, and she singles out a juxtaposition of As You Like It and Othello. The purpose is to contrast two instances of women, Rosalind and Desdemona, speaking the truth and facing the consequences. In barely a moment, Packer must transition out of Desdemona as she is being raped by Othello and become the sly, confident Rosalind.
"You're flipping your switch all the time, so you're being raped one minute and the lights change and you're onto [Rosalind]," she says. "A couple of times, I have lost it. My body's gone into convulsions. It really thinks it's being raped. I just have to send the message from my brain, 'Get it together, Tina. Get. It. Together!"
Another tricky role to play is herself, in the pieces of professorial exposition between each play. "By the time I get to part five, the part of me that's talking to the audience is getting tired," she admits. "I haven't learned a script. It's improvisational. What I have to concentrate on is: what is it I want to tell the audience? What have I been seeing all these years that I felt no one else was seeing?"
Packer has been working on Women of Will since the mid-90s, while she was the artistic director at Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts. After New York, the show will tour, and a book will be published by Knopf next year.
"Acting's a lot about the spirit and finding the thinking patterns within the person," she says. "Shakespeare was an actor. I don't think anybody other than an actor could have written these plays, because they're so much about the internal thinking patterns."
Diep Tran is an editor at American Theatre magazine. She tweets as @DiepThought.