LENOX — Olympia Dukakis is in the middle of a scene with Rocco Sisto at Shakespeare and Company, and she feels an impulse that cannot be restrained. She stops the scene, paces, and punches the air with her hand. “I want to wind up on him,’’ she says, anger rising in her throaty voice.
The two actors consult with director Tony Simotes and then run the lines a second time. But the urge strikes again. “I want to cut him off at the knees,” Dukakis growls.
Another chat. Another go. This time the towering actress can’t contain her fury. She picks up a gnarled stick from the rehearsal room floor, raises it threateningly, and spits out the words, “I want to hurl myself at him.” She launches the makeshift club, and it lands — kaboom — right at Sisto’s feet. He is unfazed. The action suits the word.
Regal and uncompromising as ever at 81, Dukakis seems to be having the time of her life as she explores the violent undercurrents of Shakespeare’s last play, “The Tempest,” which begins performances July 19 and runs through Aug. 19 at the Tina Packer Playhouse here. The Academy Award-winning actress is taking on one of the Bard’s greatest roles for older men (Prospero is now Prospera), in a production where none of the other gender roles are changed. In this scene, she is confronting Caliban, the man she enslaved after she took over his island. And she is digging deep to find the dark side of her character, something she has done throughout her long career on stage and screen.
The play, about a deposed ruler who was sent out to sea to die with his — or, in this case, her — daughter but ends up becoming a tyrannical magician on a mystical island, examines themes of vengeance and forgiveness. But at this point in the rehearsal process, Dukakis is focused on the violence in the story. What does it mean when a woman unleashes her fury? What does a woman have to sacrifice to wield power in the world?
Dukakis has been exploring those questions for quite some time. Known to many for her Oscar-winning performance as Cher’s mother in “Moonstruck” and for roles in such films as “Steel Magnolias,” she has also spent a life in the theater — teaching, acting, directing, and running the Whole Theater in New Jersey for many years with her husband, the actor Louis Zorich. But from the time she was a girl growing up in Lowell as the child of Greek immigrants, she embraced the concept of violence to rebel against the role she was expected to play as a docile young woman in a culture that was foreign to her parents.
“My father would say, ‘Shut the windows. We don’t want them to know we’re Greeks,’ ’’ she recalls after rehearsal, sipping her late afternoon beverage of iced tequila. “He actually said that. You weren’t supposed to say what was inside. You weren’t safe from humiliation if you put your feelings out there in the mixed world of America.”
But Dukakis, whose cousin Michael was the Democratic candidate for president in 1988, understood from an early age that she had to bust out of the role defined for her. And so she embraced violence. She carried a blade at age 13. “In those neighborhoods, people had to know you had a knife,’’ she says. She became a fencer, and to this day, she’ll tell you that she was the New England Junior Champion Fencer. Three years in a row.
“I said, ‘I’m going to claim violence.’ I wanted it,’’ she says, recalling a time that she sucker-punched a boy on her street when she was 9. She brought that fighter attitude to the theater as a young actress as well, and she gleefully recalls a performance in “Titus Andronicus” when the director asked her to give the male cast members a good fight. “I kneed them in the balls,’’ she recalls with a husky laugh. “They thought I was going to play nice-nice and do the damsel in distress. I told them that it’s dangerous. You are tapping into something that is instinctual and primordial.”
And that is what she is mining in “The Tempest.” Simotes, who first met Dukakis when she was his acting teacher at New York University in the 1970s, knows how uncompromising she can be. She once kicked him out of class because he was too polite, too courteous, and too homogenized. They both say he refused to acknowledge his Greek-American background. “She said, ‘Get outta here and don’t come back until you’ve figured out who you are,’ ” he says. Simotes, who is also artistic director of Shakespeare and Company, admits that, in quoting her, he cleaned up her speech, which, then as now, is laced with familiar four-letter words. He eventually ended up back in class with the teacher he describes as “my first true mentor.”
Today, the roles are flipped, and the student is the director. And together, they are exploring big questions about “The Tempest” and about power. Dukakis and the other cast members have long discussions about violence in the home. Simotes remembers his father threatening with his belt. Dukakis remembers her mother slapping her. And Sisto (also a former student of Dukakis) says he left home to get away from a volatile atmosphere. All three seem unconcerned about who is the teacher and who is the student.
The shuffling of roles seems to come naturally to the group, although there is certainly a new resonance when a woman plays Prospero. Dennis Krausnick, who has been with Shakespeare and Company since the beginning and is now director of training, directed Dukakis as King Lear in an abbreviated 1998 production called “The Lear Project,” and says audience members had varying reactions to a woman playing that monumental role. In talkbacks after performances, some commented that a woman couldn’t possibly act like such a tyrant. “Over and over again — and it was always a male — someone would say, ‘I just don’t think that a woman would behave that way.’ The women never said that. They all had mothers, and they knew what a tyrant a mother could be.’’
Dukakis is well aware of this herself, but she has a slightly different take. She has long been a student of goddesses and mythology, and for “The Tempest,” she is pondering the tale of Inanna, a Sumerian goddess. In the myth, Inanna is separated from her sister Ereshkigal, who lives a feral life in the underworld and spends her days naked, eating dirt. Inanna, on the other hand, thrives above ground and prevails in that world. But she knows something is missing, some dark sense of herself, so she goes to the underworld to restore it. She ends up dying in her attempt to regain what she lost. “There is a voice that has been quieted,” Dukakis says. “She has to reclaim that kind of aggression, that kind of anger. It’s a sense of self, a knowledge of a way of being that has been shrunken, diminished, quieted to succeed in a patriarchal world.”
Dukakis has held workshops for women focusing on that myth, and she is bringing its message to her interpretation of “The Tempest.” Even the most powerful women, she says, are complicit in silencing their primal instincts. They please in order to succeed. And at some point, their daughters understand this and rebel. Did she rebel against her own mother? “Yes,” she says, pounding her fist on a table.
And did her daughter? . . . “Yes!” Another slam of her hand.
And in the play? Prospera conjures up the storm of the title partly to extract revenge and partly to reclaim her daughter Miranda’s birthright. And Miranda confronts her mother about what has happened on the island. “She comes out and says that if you have been complicit in this horrible tragedy, do something about it,’’ Dukakis says. “I had a daughter, and those girls take you on.”
But the point isn’t to create a play — or a world — where women are dominant, but to create a sense of equilibrium where both genders can share power and celebrate all aspects of themselves, including ferocity. “We have to find a way in which both men and women are sacred and important to the planet and no one is diminished by the other,” Dukakis says. “I don’t know if the audience is going to get it.” A pause. “Well, I would say that half of them will.”