By Phoebe Jones
In the basement of the Morristown & Township Library there is a single chair and a music stand.
They were all the props veteran actress Ellen Barry needed on Sunday to introduce local theater enthusiasts to The Infinite Variety of Shakespeare’s Women.
The Bard’s language, expertly delivered, was enough.
“Shakespeare’s words elevate women out of the ordinary,” Barry said, during an hour-long presentation in which she performed brief monologues of several female characters, chosen chronologically as an actress might play them throughout her life.
All too often, the actress acknowledged, productions push Shakespeare’s female characters into the background. And although Shakespeare was guilty of creating more roles for men, this does not mean their female counterparts are any less rich in character.
She proved her point starting with the naïve and submissive Helena from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and ended with the stern and witchy Queen Margaret from Henry VI and Richard III.
Each character, she argued, is essential to the continuity of the story. Barry’s performance as Juliet from Romeo and Juliet was met with thunderous applause.
“Shakespeare wrote Juliet with just as much depth as Romeo,” Barry said before performing Juliet’s soliloquy from Act 4, Scene 3.
Juliet is not merely an impulsive teenager, as many productions lead the audience to believe. Barry showed how Shakespeare’s words indicate a more mature person asserting her individuality. Juliet is defying the societal demands of her era.
“She is a wonderful actress,” said Barry’s friend, Deborah Martin, who worked as musical director for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, which Barry and her late husband, Paul Barry, founded in 1963 in Cape May. The festival moved to Drew University in Madison in 1972 and later was rechristened the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.
Martin said she never will forget Ellen Barry as Queen Hermione in A Winter’s Tale.
Photojournalist Jim DelGiudice, who introduced Barry on Sunday, also recounted a memorable performance. The first time he saw Barry perform at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival she was completely naked on stage.
“Yes, but only for a moment!” shot back Barry, red-faced.
Coincidentally, DelGiudice’s photo collection, A Small Thing but My Own, is on display at the library in Morristown.
“We are on view today—like two old corpses,” he joked.
On a more serious note, Barry expressed her love for libraries as defenders of language that is being eroded by popular culture.
“Texting, tweeting, and twittering make me fear we are on a fast path to illiteracy,” Barry said, urging the audience to read Shakespeare to appreciate the richness of language.
This is especially vital now, in the United States’ politically divisive atmosphere, she said.
“Words matter more than ever. They are used, unfortunately, too lightly at times. The more we reduce our communication…we lose specificity, we lose nuance, we lose tone.
“Rich language is a treasure we must not lose.”
Phoebe Jones is a freshman at Drew University, where she writes for the Drew Acorn.