Shakespeare’s female characters include queens, maids, wives, daughters, plucky cross-dressers, tragic heroines, madwomen, shepherdesses, and charming romantic leads, but never in the same play. In the second and final week of community partner shows, Kentucky Shakespeare Festival hosts Shoestring Productions’ “Women of Will” doing just that – presenting a collection of bite-sized scenes and monologues showcasing the Bard’s most memorable female characters, from Desdemona to Viola, all on stage in one evening.
Adapted from sixteen Shakespeare plays by director Kathi E.B. Ellis, “Women of Will” uses four actors (Meg Caudill, Erica McClure, Chelsea Skalski and Karole Spangler) to demonstrate both the diversity of Shakespeare’s women and the versatility of the very talented artists on stage.
Many of selected scenes and monologues are sourced from some of Shakespeare’s best-known pieces, like Portia’s “the quality of mercy” speech from “The Merchant of Venice” and Juliet’s playful scene with her Nurse, who has helped arrange her secret marriage to Romeo, creating a “greatest hits” sort of vibe that serves as a handy introduction to the canon. But the production also includes some darker horses, including an impassioned self-defense by the wronged queen of “The Winter’s Tale” (which Ellis directed this summer at Josephine Sculpture Park’s Shakespeare SummerStage) and a chilling scene between the Scottish play’s Lady MacDuff and her child that rarely receives this high of a profile in its native habitat.
Though the show is stitched together from many sources, Ellis creates an arc, starting with more romantic, lighthearted fare, then transitioning to a darker tone with the introduction of Desdemona (“Othello”) and Ophelia (“Hamlet”), then coming back to the light with Henry V’s Katherine and Alice practicing their English (“fangers!”) and the cross-dressing hijinks of “As You Like It” and “Twelfth Night.”
The actors switch characters on a dime, using small costume touches like scarves, hats and shawls to suggest changes in station and age. Many of their portrayals made me hungry to see these particular actors play the roles in their entirety – Spangler as a wry, mature Beatrice (“Much Ado About Nothing”) and a complex, imperious Cleopatra; McClure’s tragic Desdemona and defiant Hermione (“The Winter’s Tale”); Caudill as feisty Hermia and Skalski as a charming, gamine-style Puck (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”).
Ellis makes effective use of the festival’s wireless microphone system to create entrances from all corners of the amphitheater and its expanded stage, but some of the intimacy of these one- and two-person scenes is swallowed by such a large space. It might be helpful for some audience members to have the play attributed alongside the featured characters in the program, for those who wonder “which one is Phoebe again?” But even if you don’t know your Celia from your Ophelia, “Women of Will” will leave you with a deeper appreciation for the human side of Shakespeare’s plays, as his most vulnerable characters show incredible strength, grace and humor under the significant cultural pressures of their times.
There are two more performances of “Women of Will” (Thursday, Saturday) in this final week of the festival, which also includes Savage Rose Classical Theatre’s production of “King Lear” (Wednesday, Friday, Sunday). All shows begin at 8 p.m. in Old Louisville’s Central Park, with pre-show entertainment at 7:15 p.m.