'Antony & Cleopatra'; Tina Packer adds maturity to a Shakespearian icon.

Position:ETC.
 
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Byline: Richard Duckett

Shakespeare & Company has been playing on for 30 years. Tina Packer has been on top of the ride from the start.

"I have to say I'm astonished it's 30 years," said Packer, the company's artistic director and founder. "It feels like no years in a way. Or it just feels like my life."

It's an ever-evolving life for Packer, who is from England, trained with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, once appeared in episodes of the vintage "Dr. Who" BBC TV series, came to this country on a grant to develop her ideas about Shakespearean acting, founded Shakespeare & Company in Lenox in 1978 and oversaw a successful move from one Lenox location to another in 2001. Earlier this year she became U.S. citizen. Now for the first time she is playing a lead role in a Shakespeare play put on by Shakespeare & Company.

Packer plays Cleopatra in "Antony and Cleopatra," which opened Friday at the company's Founders' Theatre and runs through Sept. 2. Nigel Gore plays Cleopatra's lover, Marc Antony, while 15-year-old company veteran Michael Hammond directs.

Part of celebrating the 30-year success of Shakespeare & Company is the fact that Packer can take a major role acting and briefly "take my eyes off the company," she said.

She's directed plenty of Shakespeare, written about him, and developed "Women of Will," her own trilogy based on Shakespeare's relationship to the feminine, which she performed as a one-woman show in 1991 at Mechanics Hall, Worcester.

Twenty years ago she directed "Antony and Cleopatra" at Shakespeare & Company. "As a director, I thought about her from the outside rather the inside," Packer said.

Asked the perhaps delicate question of whether Cleopatra isn't a role normally tackled by actresses in their 20s and 30s, the down-to-earth Packer was quick to respond.

"I don't think you take it on in your 20s and 30s," she said, pointing out that Cleopatra has been played in recent years by the likes of Judi Dench, and, five years ago, Vanessa Redgrave.

"With the English ladies they play it in their mature years, like myself," she said - her English accent lingering over the two syllables of "ma-ture."

She laughed, which hopefully meant she hadn't been offended. Then she noted that in Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" the heroine travels emotionally from being "a little girl to an old crone." Cleopatra calls herself "`wrinkled deep in time,'" Packer said. "There are a lot of references to the fact that she's in the...

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