Shakespeare wrote a number of incredibly thought-provoking and complex roles for women characters—Cordelia, Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, Portia, Kate—and the list is long. In fact, some might say the cast of Shakespearean men pales beside that of the dynamic women to which he gave life. “Jane Anger,” a comedy written by Talene Monahon, puts, under a raucous spotlight, a couple of the “real life” women who just might have influenced the iconic Bard—you never know. The STC-produced play offers audiences a bit of a tongue-in-cheek look at Shakespearean playwriting ground zero in a rousing behind-the-scenes farcical exposé of sorts.
…launches the play into its own completely unique genre—a very good thing as handled by the intelligent direction of Jess Chayes…The acting is what truly steals the show…
The titular character, Jane Anger, was (we are told) a real person—an early feminist pamphleteer producing some of the first writing on what it meant to be a woman in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Women are far more than just an invention of men is a theme upon which Anger repeatedly touches. In this play, Monahon ironically turns the tables, making this version of Shakespeare an invention of a woman. And boy, what a version we get.
Keeping in mind that this play was written in 2020—a year certain to make anyone cringe—the “pandemic” motif definitely has its way with this show. Beyond the frequent pop-up references, it helps drive some of the key themes of the production: claustrophobia, despair, and hopelessness with a dash of hysterical ready to hop the crazy train to insanity. We’ve all been there.
An easy-to-love, easier-to-hate Shakespeare (Michael Urie) suffers from writer’s block while trying to pen “King Lear” (STC will be presenting the play in February 2023). Then the plague hits and he gets trapped in his apartment with a peasant/street urchin (Ryan Spahn) he names Frankie or Francis or any number of variations therein. (Read our interview with Spahn here.) Meanwhile, Jane Anger (Amelia Workman), an old acquaintance of the Bard rumored to be the “Dark Lady” of sonnet legend, is on a quest to attain the highly coveted signature of the esteemed playwright so that a publisher will agree to put out her pamphlet. Shimmying in through the window of Shakespeare’s apartment dressed as a Cunning Woman, Jane sets off a series of calamitous events that have audiences laughing as the puns keep rolling in. Add the eventual arrival of Shakespeare’s somewhat estranged wife Anne Hathaway (Talene Monahon) to the mix, and you have a powder keg of a quarantine situation at hand.
While the overall plot of the play is highly amusing, it does seem to take a back seat to the jokes, the double entendres, and the positioning of character interactions under the lens of a modern-day milieu. For example, there’s one sex scene (or rather the lead-up to a totally weird person-to-pastry encounter—if you’re thinking “American Pie,” you’re close) in which Jane and Shakespeare first establish a “safe word.” What else could it be but “Falstaff.” This repeated breaking of the bounds of the play’s timeframe keeps audiences on their toes and launches the play into its own completely unique genre—a very good thing as handled by the intelligent direction of Jess Chayes.
The acting is what truly steals the show here—on all four counts. Michael Urie’s Shakespeare is a perfectly puerile and arrogant representation of the kind of man who would’ve prompted the Jane Angers of that world to rise up and pen indignant treatises and pamphlets on “men as eels, snakes…seducers and liars.” Spahn’s Francis comes off as a cross between Gollum and Cousin Eddie, and I believe that’s exactly what he’s supposed to be. It works exceedingly well in the context of this plague-besieged world. Anne Hathaway, a role undertaken by the playwright herself, is a cleverly conceived, nails-on-chalkboard innocent (or is she?) and garners perhaps the most laughs in the show. Then, of course, we have Jane Anger. Workman’s fourth wall-breaking moments (often in exasperation) are appreciably relatable and also hysterical. Her “WTF” expressions upon watching the dysfunctional dynamics of the rest of the characters are what we are all thinking. She becomes the everywoman’s comrade-in-arms during this journey and thus proves the audience’s much-needed anchor when the waters get most turbulent. That is, until she turns on us…but I won’t give anything away. My only complaint here is that I didn’t hear enough from the before-her-time Anger, her voice often overshadowed by the men in the room—or perhaps, that was the point.
Kristen Robinson’s set design works extremely well. It conveys just the right amount of “playwright who’s made it” complete with a much larger-than-life size self-portrait, and “do I have to spend another locked-down minute in this one space with these same people”—again, we’ve all been there. Andrea Hood’s costume design bespeaks a smart blend of Renaissance chic meets quirky artist. Kudos to Lindsay Jones’ sound design and Jeremy Chernick’s special effects that make all the chaos and character dysfunctionality seem just another day at the office in this theatrical universe.
All in all, this is a very good show that will leave you laughing; at some points scratching your head wondering what in the world did I just see; and ultimately, appreciating that yes, even in the midst of a plague (or a pandemic), there are still people who can find the humor and create something worthwhile from it.
Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: This production includes sexual references and blood. It is recommended for mature audiences.
“Jane Anger” runs through January 8, 2022, presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Klein Theatre, 450 7th Street NW Washington, DC 20004. For more information and tickets, go online or call the Box Office at 202-547-1122. COVID Safety: STC hosts MASK REQUIRED performances on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays and MASK RECOMMENDED performances on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.