Corliss Preston’s spoken-word CD I Grant I Am a Woman, partially financed through a Kickstarter campaign, is a powerful way to experience the words of Shakespeare’s women. This visceral performance piece has layers of meaning that become more and more apparent with multiple listens. Lie silently and alone and allow each word to drape your being.
The concept for the CD came about after years of Preston performing the women of Shakespeare— Gertrude, Emilia, Olivia, Hermione, Viola, Queen Margaret, Mistress Page, Rosaline and more. Their voices, their words became a part of her. She felt compelled to explore their dialogue outside the context of the plays. Consequently, the CD is an avant-garde mashup of Shakespeare’s women, performed by Preston and actress Michelle Shupe, with music and sound effects by composer and sound designer John Slywka, guitarist Paul Richards and flutist Julie Koidin. The result includes seven pieces, five to eight minutes each, that explore emotions that come with loss, love, hate, vengeance, power, desire, sisterhood, empathy, despair— and the many roles women play in life.
The CD’s Prologue manages to exploit that claustrophobic feeling of women caught and bound in a world that views them from the eyes of the men in their lives. So often in Shakespeare’s works, as in films today, a woman’s main identity comes from being a wife, a daughter, a mother, not from being uniquely herself. The piece opens with Portia’s plea to her husband Brutus (Julius Caesar) to please confide in her: “I Grant I am a Woman, but withal a woman that Lord Brutus took to wife. I grant I am a woman, but withal a woman well-reputed, Cato’s daughter”. While Portia’s strength comes from within herself, Shakespeare’s words have her prove her worthiness to her husband by reminding him of the powerful men, including himself, who have made her strong. Worse yet, his words require, she first slander her own sex by declaring woman’s nature to be weak: “Think you I am no stronger than my sex, being so fathered and so husbanded?” The next several lines focus on a woman’s physical weaknesses, rather than her emotional weakness. This section marries lines from Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing) and Lady Macbeth. Both long to exact revenge/murder (respectfully) as a man might, but both must sit on the sidelines and wait for a man to do their bidding or “die a woman with grieving”.
The topic in Unseasoned Justice deals with the grief of a mother’s loss caused from man’s choice to seek power through violence. Among the many women’s voices is Constance from the famous “I am not mad” speech (King John). Once again, her identity is defined by the men in her life: Geffrey’s wife, young Arthur’s mother. The piece ends with two women in two different courtrooms. Their dueling voices have incredible power. Among the voices is Hermione, who is threatened with death in A Winter’s Tale, a death she fears not. She defiantly calls out that Apollo will be her judge, not the court, nor any man, even if he wears the crown. Meanwhile, Queen Katharine (Henry VIII) argues her case with a deceptively meek approach, “I am a simple woman, much too weak to oppose your cunning,” but her true meaning and strength attacks her tormentors with the strength of a sword lobbing off a head. Neither women back down from their male oppressors. The piece ends with the sound of prison doors slamming, yet the women somehow are not trapped because their minds are free.
The next piece Talk you of Killing, a line from Othello, ends with an eerie rendition of the Willow Song from the same play. In Wives Intuition, the voices of Macbeth’s witches intertwine as the other wives of Shakespeare talk of killing. This creative choice harkens a particularly ominous tone that seems to call out to the atrocities of the past when a woman’s intuition could get her burned at the stake for being a witch.
The dark desire for revenge and power is explored in Hell Hath No Fury, which reintroduces Macbeth’s three witches. It opens with an intermingling quotes from Lady Macbeth and Queen Margaret. One of the most chilling comes from Queen Margaret (Henry IV), “Oft, I have heard that grief softens the mind and makes it fearful and degenerate; think therefore on revenge and cease to weep”.
Immortal Words, the final piece, is both an epilogue and epitaph. It opens with the jealous Hecate, the leader of the Macbeth witches, angrily scolding her three underlings: “How did you dare to trade and traffic with Macbeth in riddles and affairs of death? And I, the mistress of your charms, the close contriver of all harms was never called to bear my part or show the glory of our art?”
As a bonus, the CD includes songs from Shakespeare’s plays. Among them are the Willow Song that Desdemona sings in Othello and Tell Me, Where is Fancy Bred? from The Merchant of Venice. In short, this avant-garde work is to be dined upon, slowly and deliberately, savoring each of its courses, not grotesquely belched as one devouring grub from a fast-food trough. Kudos to Preston and her talented team of creative artists for giving us such meaty food for thought.
Film director and writer Deborah Voorhees writes reviews, features, and a weekly column Bard in Multimedia that publishes each Monday and covers books, films, recordings, web content, videos, video games, radio, television, and all emerging mediums. Send press releases and comments firstname.lastname@example.org.