Tina Packer Is Shirley Valentine

Diva Series at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox

By: - May 28, 2009

Tina Tina Tina Tina Tina

Shirley Valentine
By Willy Russell
Directed by Jenna Ware; Set Designer, Kiki Smith; Lighting Designer, Greg Solomon; Costume Designer, Govane Lohbauer; Sound Designer, Michael Pfeiffer; Stage Manager, Meredyth Pederson. Production sponsored by Dr. Donald and Phoebe Giddon.
Starring Tina Packer. From the Diva Series of Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass. Shirley Valentine, May 27-31, September 11, The Actors Rehearse the Story of Charlotte Solomon, June 3-14 and September 12, Golda's Balcony, June 17- July 3 and September 13.

On every level Tina Packer, who is stepping down as Artistic Director of Shakespeare & Company which she founded 32 years ago, Is Shirley Valentine. That was made abundantly clear last night in a stunning performance that earned a standing ovation. In her typically Tinaesque, warmhearted and infectious manner she pleaded for funds during an interrupted curtain call (well there is no curtain actually). Later Packer was choking back tears recalling the two, real, Shirley Valentines, her Mom and Aunt, during a champagne reception in the lobby. She also explained some of the jokes we didn't get stating that she found them really funny. So buzz off.

This is the role Packer is best known for. A slam dunk, total knockout. Wow. She first performed it in the late 1980s in Boston; then at S&Co in 1991 and 1995. It was presented for one night last season before a VIP audience christening the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on the Lenox campus. If you miss this all too brief run which ends on May 31 be sure to be there on September 11. The one nighter of Shirley Valentine will be part of a three night recap (September 11, 12, and 13) of the ambitious Diva Series. Shirley Valentine is the first of three shows followed by "The Actors Rehearse the Story of Charlotte Solomon"  which has its world premiere, starring Penny  Kreitzer in a one woman show with some 16 nuances of character, next week, June 3-14 and a reprieve of  S&Co's acclaimed production of "Golda"s Balcony" June 17 through July 3.

The Willy Russell one woman play is an adaptation of the 1989 film directed by Lewis Gilbert starring Pauline Collins as the Liverpool housewife of a certain age who has a life changing vacation and fling in Greece. Costas was played with smarmy charm by Tom Conti. He does not appear in the play but we get the idea of how he beds a succession of British housewives succumbing to the lure and exotic fascination with all things Greek. It doesn't take much imagination to feel the contrast between slaving over the stove to serve chips and eggs to a brute and a bore of a  husband,  compared to sailing around a Greek island with Costas and fornicating in the moonlight. Oh those Greeks. All of this, by the way, predates by some Mama Mia which has a similar allure. Another of those runaway mad housewives.

The first act finds Shirley, rather bonkers and talking to the Wall. Yes, the Wall is an important character in this tale. As is the Rock which she talks to later in Greece. Of course as mute objects they don't talk back which is more than can be said for her husband and a spoiled rotten, self absorbed daughter.

While not really a feminist, which means that she likes men and dreams of more sex but not with the bloke she lives with, Shirley has discovered the vast potential of her clitoris. She tells us of its many charms in blush evoking detail. It provided perhaps more than I wanted to know. This reminded me of squirming in my seat as one of only a couple of males in a howling and raucous audience of women loving every little minute of the Vagina Monologues. What to make of a middle aged woman going on and on about the many delights of her pussy? And I don't mean kitty cat. Shirley blamed it all on Freud and who was she to debate Him? It seems he was just one of those many men who had oppressed her. Packer's earth shattering, raucous, and randy send up of the mad Shirley was intended to fill me with clitoris envy. Who knew?

While  going off on these bonkers tangents Shirley is peeling the spuds to make the fresh chips in hot grease, get it? The trope is a contrast between grease, putting a meal on the table, or Greece, which is another kind of cooking if you catch the drift.

For dinner that night she intends to serve chips and eggs and not the juicy steak that is a ritual meal on Thursdays. She relates how she gave the steak to the bloodhound of friends who had raised the poor animal, a bloodhound no less,  as a vegetarian. They are vegans whom Shirley describes as fanatical vegetarians. The dog deserved the raw meat more than her beast of a husband. Who proclaims "I love you" while delivering yet another bashing about. Shirley wonders just when and how they fell out of love with such a thud. This speculation has something to do with Cadberry  chocolates and withholding sexual favors. That once you give in and do the nasty it's just steak and chips on Thursdays along with all the other cooking and cleaning.

It seems her best friend has sold her house and wants to use some of the money for a holiday. She invites Shirley to come along and provides a free ticket. Most of the first act focuses on how to tell her husband. And a shopping spree to pick up some sexy undies for the trip. There she encounters a shocked neighbor who assumes the lingerie is for Shirley's daughter. Another encounter is with a former schoolmate who now, it seems, is a well traveled, upscale hooker.

Through s process of progressively more agonizing and hilarious ironies Shirley talks her way into actually taking off. But not before stocking the freezer with dinners. Even in rebellion she is bound to cook the meals. Habits however dreary are hard to break. Including the daughter who summarily arrives back home expecting to be waited on hand and foot.

We come to feel that Shirley will never break away from the oppressive web of chains, fetters, and repressive traditions. Will this devolve from madcap to mad ending in another screed like the "Yellow Wallpaper" inducing a Freudian talking cure for hysteria? Perhaps the wall will start talking back or she will morph into a feminist bug like Kafka's Gregor.

After intermission, however, there is Shirley on the beach. She says to us directly that perhaps we don't recognize her. She milks the line as she does so often during the campy performance. Packer has a habit of laughing with us and at herself. There are so many layers of engaging self parody in her approach to theatre. She invites us into all aspects of her bonkers style. Her every gesture is full tilt and over the top. Only in the theater can one be so utterly mad. There is the constant blur between funny and deranged. Indeed one would have to be total gonzo to drag along a theatre company these past 32 years. The present crisis is only another brush with extinction. What else is new?

Yes, we enjoyed celebrating with her in Greece. To see her tossing down the apron and getting laid by the romantic Costas. She dubs him Christopher Columbus for his loving attention to the little man in her boat. The Noah's Arc of libido.

If you shut your eyes however. Tina is just a bit past her prime in this role. She is at least a decade south of convincing as the middle aged Brit housewife boffing by the sea on a Greek Island. Packer is too evidently matronly for cruising the Aegean buck naked with a lothario manning the tiller of her little boat. Oh well. Really who cares?

Bravo Tina. We jumped to our feet just a hesitant step behind the rest of the audience. Critics after all are too cool and jaded for standing Os.

It was pure Packer when she shushed us pushing us back in our seats as she used the momentum to hit us up for cash. "I've entertained you for the past two and a half hours" she said and added now you can do something for me. "Give us some money." Help us to reach our goal of $1.2 million, in addition to the $8 million already raised, so we can qualify for the $800,000 Kresge grant. She reminded us of the envelopes in our programs. Astrid and I were pleased to make contributions. You should too.

Later in the lobby over champagne Tina talked about family and how personal she finds Shirley Valentine. It is a metaphor for a generation of women. She described her mother and aunt as Shirley Valentines. Her mother made the break, divorce implied but not stated, and earned a living supporting the kids as a school teacher. The aunt did not break away. She drew on memories of these women, a great inspiration to her, in forging the character of Shirley Valentine. In such a typical manner she conveyed how the role means so much more to her than just a character and performance. She was choking up as she related that only after her mother's death was it revealed that early on  she had been an actor. Poignantly,  Tina has lived her mother's dream just as Virginia Woolf speculated on the fate of Shakespeare's sister in "A Room of One's Own."

Coming to Shakespeare & Company is always so much more than an evening of theatre. It evokes a family gathering; an occasion to interact with people who love and really care about theatre. Where we feel welcome and appreciated. I thanked Tina for sharing all those warm and fuzzy insights about her clitoris. She howled in laughter. And urged us to come back for all 18 of the productions this summer. We'll do the best we can. The company actress and head of PR, Elizabeth Aspenlieder, introduced us to Jonathan Rest who is directing Charlotte Solomon. He in turn brought over the South African actress, Penny Keitzer. We discussed the play and they invited us to continue the dialogue. Similarly we spoke with Alyssa  Hughlett who is starring in Romeo and Juliet. She described months on the road including an 8 AM performance before an enthusiastic audience at a private school. We asked what months on the road had meant in terms of developing her skills. She expressed how remarkable it has been and how great it was to perform back home for an adult audience. How do you put a price on that experience? Tina has made it happen for more than a generation of young performers.

As always a visit to Shakespeare & Company works its way into your heart and mind. It makes you think and feel. More than show biz it gets into your soul and courses through your blood. Like a throbbing clitoris. Or so I am told. Hey, what do I know? I'm just a guy. What's that compared to a Diva?