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WILL'S WOMEN: Catch Shakespeare’s great heroines all on one stage

Photo courtesy of Huntington Theatre Company

For a guy who wrote in the late 1500s to early 1600s, William Shakespeare was sure in touch with his feminine side.

Some Shakespearean scholars call the Bard a feminist for painting such layered and complex women like Cleopatra or Katharina.

Others say he portrayed women as victims - most end up murdered, mad or suicidal, like Desdemona or Ophelia.

No matter which school of thought you subscribe to, Shakespeare was a masterful storyteller, weaving tales of murder, mystery, deceit, sex, lust and intrigue long before “Dynasty” or “Desperate Housewives.”

Desdemona was murdered by her husband, Othello, because he suspected infidelity. Ophelia, Hamlet’s sweetheart, went crazy and drowned. Cleopatra is the role many scholars consider the most complex of the Bard’s women - she’s a diva with the characteristics of a tragic hero.

“Shakespeare’s women are immensely complex characters,” said Rebekah Maggor, who wrote and performs in the one-woman show, “Shakespeare’s Actresses in America,” under way through Feb. 11 at the Huntington Theatre Company’s Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. The show recreates the voices and styles of famous Shakespearean actresses in the roles of some his greatest women characters - Elizabeth Taylor’s 1967 role of Katharina in “Taming of the Shrew” or Ellen Terry’s late 19th century Juliet.

“I’m an actress playing an actress playing a character,” she said.

“The show looks at how women are portrayed through each generation in a different way,” Maggor said. “In a way, the show reflects the changing American culture. It tells us about ourselves. It tells us how we see women and judge behavior and the changing conception of womenhood.”

Maggor began her research in 2003 while working on her thesis. Maggor was getting her MFA in acting at the American Repertory Theatre’s Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. She stumbled across recordings of actresses performing Shakespeare, some dating to the late 1800s.

A year later Maggor would turn her thesis research into a stage show and perform it at the ART’s Zero Arrow Theatre.

“I got a wonderful response and it was a fantastic experience,” she said.

The actresses portrayed span the time between the 19th century and today. Maggor channels Margaret Webster, an adored theater artist of the 20th century, to narrate. Webster was the first woman to direct Shakespearean plays on Broadway. “Many people don’t know that,” Maggor said. “She directed and starred in ‘Othello’ and that play holds the record as the longest running Shakespeare play on Broadway.”

Along with Taylor and Terry audiences will also meet:

  • Sarah Bernhardt - arguably the most famous actress of the 19th century; was Hamlet in 1900.
  • Claire Danes - modern-day starlet who was Juliet in in Baz Luhrman’s film version of “Romeo + Juliet,” 1996.
  • Eva La Gallienne - esteemed actress, director and producer in the 1920s-30s. Lady MacBeth.
  • Mary Pickford - silent screen star; Katharina in “Taming of the Shrew,” 1929.
  • Celia Adler - Desdemona, “As You Like It” in Yiddish. She was an American Jewish actress, known as the “First Lady of the Yiddish Theatre.”
  • Lisa Gay Hamilton - Shakespearean actress, Ophelia in 2000.

“One of the most amazing things about the show is there are so many layers. We get to know Shakespeare’s heroines in ways we never would interpret before,” Maggor said.

“These women are extraordinary. What’s amazing is that some were doing these things in the 19th and 20th century and forging ahead. They didn’t think of themselves as women artists. They did what they did for the arts,” said Maggor, referring to actresses like La Gallienne, Terry and Bernhardt.

These women blazed the trail for women in theater today, Maggor said. Back then women were actors, producers, directors, writers. “They did it all,” she said.

Maggor calls “Shakespeare’s Actresses in America” “wicked fun and entertaining. People are sometimes afraid of Shakespeare. But this is a cabaret of Shakespeare. It’s for those who know and love him, but also for those who don’t know him that well. An 8-year-old girl can come and have fun and follow along.”

Maggor said she does not have a favorite Shakespeare play.

“It’s hard to name one because there are so many. There’s something beautiful about each one.”

Besides playwright and actress, Maggor also directs the Program in Speaking and Learning at Harvard. She tapped her training as a voice and speech coach to refine her performance.

Maggor said she studied where each actress holds tension when they speak, where they focus voice, pronunciation and melody. “There’s a lot of studying and experiencing,” she said, stressing that she isn’t doing impersonations or imitations. She’s recreating America’s greatest actresses in great Shakespearean roles, Maggor said.

“I get to the core and soul of how they saw their characters,” Maggor said.

By Dana Barbuto