It seems appropriate to begin Women of Will, a personal exploration of gender, sex, and power in Shakespeare, with an excerpt from The Taming of the Shrew. But despite a lifetime of working with the Bard, Tina Packer, the show’s creator and star, gets the play thoroughly wrong. She jokes that as a “card-carrying feminist,” she should be appalled by Petruchio’s behavior, and poses that Kate, in accepting his demands, must either be manic, a Marilyn Monroe-type submissive, or clinically depressed. Harold Bloom, typically spot-on, wrote that the two “are clearly going to be the happiest married couple in Shakespeare,” and that Kate is not giving in to her lover but “advising women how to rule absolutely, while feigning obedience.” The title, of course, is ironic—Petruchio, blinded by vanity, is in fact the one being tamed.
This is typical of Ms. Packer’s production, which samples generously from the great women in Shakespeare but is oddly lacking in insightful commentary. She and her partner, Nigel Gore, play Desdemona and Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Rosalind and Orlando, but only to illustrate rather banal points: here are Shakespeare’s shrews, here are his virgins, here are his women who are punished for telling the truth. It is shocking that someone so familiar with the texts could have so little to say. Admittedly, Women of Will is a condensed version of a longer, five-part investigation that will premiere in April—but in nearly three hours, we would expect something more than these lazy, undergraduate-level sketches.
To be fair, both Ms. Packer and Mr. Gore are amiable and competent performers. Ms. Packer has a witch-like giggle that follows most of her jokes—inspiring the audience to laugh along with her, even if her humor falls flat. And Mr. Gore, elderly but athletic, can rapidly snap in and out of scenes, often visibly moved by what he has just performed. He has a rather effective response to Queen Margaret, noting that while her evil infuriates him, a double standard allows the equally villainous Henry V to enjoy a happy reputation in England.
Still, the too-rehearsed banter quickly becomes tiring. “You’re objectifying me,” Mr. Gore replies after Ms. Packer mentions his penis, a particularly stale moment in a consistently stale evening. Women of Will has a great deal of mass but no density. Shakespeare is bursting with sexual interest, but Ms. Packer has yet to scratch the surface.