Madcap ‘Jane Anger’ is screamingly funny at Shakespeare Theatre

Jane Anger is 90 minutes of unrelenting, unrepentant, and seemingly inexhaustible ridiculousness executed by some very skilled craftspeople. One of the funniest things about the entire endeavor to me is the length to which the Shakespeare Theatre goes to convince its audience that this play has a serious educational and cultural point to make about the life and times of William Shakespeare, and about feminist relevance and emphasis on the plight of female playwrights of the 17th century. We do get some suitably educational notes on the way women were treated in 17th-century Britain and how their lives were portrayed onstage. We also are shown examples of women’s response to those portrayals, especially as demonstrated in the example of the eponymous Jane Anger. But, really. If you come to the theater expecting a serious exploration of the social relevance of Shakespeare, you might feel like there’s been a bait-and-switch. In the tradition of the insincere and sycophantic Eddie Haskell of Leave It to Beaver fame — this show is all about the yuks. Oh, and the blood. As in any good revenge tragedy (even though the playwright calls this a “revenge comedy”), there’s lots of highly decorative blood (fight choreographer, Sean Michael Chin; special effects, Jeremy Chernick). And I will confess. I laughed. I screamed.

Ryan Spahn as Francis and Michael Urie as William Shakespeare in ‘Jane Anger.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

In the early 1600s, there is a plague raging in London, theaters are closed, and — in Playwright Talene Monahon’s conception — William Shakespeare has writer’s block. Jane Anger, a female of independent attitude if not means, having acted as a “muse” for Shakespeare in the past, has decided that she wants to have her own writing published. (The word “muse” here has all the double-winking innuendo that you can allow it.) But in 1606 publishing work by women is simply not done. Shakespeare’s printer informs her that he will not publish her work unless she gets Shakespeare’s signature on the permission agreement. Jane sets out to procure Shakespeare’s signature, climbing through the second-story window of his lodgings to do so, since the place he lives has been closed to entry and exit on account of the plague. When she arrives at the apartment, she encounters — in addition to Shakespeare — Francis, an aspiring actor who was caught in the apartment when the plague lockdown began. This trio becomes a quartet when they are joined by Shakespeare’s much-put-upon wife, Anne (“second best bed”) Hathaway. After arguing over who is the real “dark lady of the sonnets” (Jane, Francis, and Anne each have an arguable claim), Shakespeare agrees to sign for the publication of Jane Anger’s work — if she agrees to act as his “muse” and help him bring to completion his newest play. This is a comedy. So, rest assured, everything comes out alright at the end. Even with all the blood.

Michael Urie as William Shakespeare, Amelia Workman as Jane Anger, and Talene Monahon as Anne Hathaway in ‘Jane Anger.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

The four featured actors are led into this slightly unhinged adventure under the direction of Jess Chayes, who fearlessly keeps this collection of madcap antics coherent. The supple improvisatory actors give this production life.

Amelia Workman, who plays Jane Anger, is a graduate of Duke Ellington School for the Arts (DESA), which along with Howard University makes it their business to turn out more than their share of competent American theater craftspeople. Workman’s solid “film noir tough broad” presence as the narrator/protagonist constantly breaks the fourth wall to let the audience know whose sympathies they should share and which variation of crazy is worth following. Despite the fact that the play bears her name as its title, however, the character of Jane Anger seems a fourth corner to the menage-a-trois of Shakespeare, Anne Hathaway, and Francis.

Michael Urie is the actor with the greatest marquee recognition onstage. But instead of sticking out like a sore thumb, he sweats and wields his comedic ax with as much glee and fervor as everybody else in this ensemble. His Shakespeare is irredeemably whiny, insufferable, and truly deserving of what he gets in the end.

Ryan Spahn as Francis has the unquenchable ambition of Eve Harrington (from the movie All About Eve) mixed with the unstoppable optimism embodied in Sally Fields’ famous Academy Award acceptance speech. His character’s throughline leads to an unexpected and untoppable moment in the show.

Monahon wrote the role of Anne Hathaway for herself. And wow, it shows off her ability to get a dramaturgic return on every line. Working the word “Hamnet” (the name for the child she and Shakespeare had and whose name is reconstructed for the title of Hamlet), Monahon never fails to get a laugh every time she delivers it with maximum resentment.

The costumes (Andrea Hood) and the set (Kristen Robinson) are the equivalent of a straight man (or a straight face) in this production. They keep us grounded in 1609. Every time a textual anachronism brazenly slapped us in the face, the set and costumes kept insisting, in steadfast detail, that all of this is to be taken seriously.

Michael Urie as William Shakespeare in ‘Jane Anger.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

If there are a lot of camp references in this review, that’s because campiness is essential to this production. If you’ve ever seen that San Francisco entertainment landmark, Beach Blanket Bingo, one of Charles Ludlum’s Theater of the Ridiculous masterpieces such as The Mystery of Irma Vep, or any British panto, you’ll recognize the roots that Jane Anger is trailing onto the Shakespeare Theatre Company stage. It’s kind of cute, since panto is typically performed around Christmas time, that the Shakespeare Theatre would be presenting a play of this style during this season (and at this point in a highly grief-filled couple of years).

Monahon writes in a program note: “I call Jane Anger a revenge comedy — which is a genre that doesn’t exist… As our wonderful team delved into the world of Jane Anger, we found ourselves pondering over the same questions. Who gets to be funny? Who gets to be angry? Who gets to change history?”

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes without intermission.

Jane Anger plays through January 8, 2023, Tuesday through Sunday, at the Klein Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($35–$125) may be purchased online or by calling the Box Office at 202-547-1122. Special discounts are available for members of the military, students, seniors, and patrons age 35 and under. Contact the Box Office or visit Shakespearetheatre.org/tickets-and-events/special-offers/ for more information.

The STC Asides+ program for Jane Anger is online here.

COVID Safety: STC hosts MASK REQUIRED performances on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays and MASK RECOMMENDED performances on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Detailed COVID information is here.

JANE ANGER
Written by: Talene Monahon
Directed by: Jess Chayes

Cast: Amelia Workman (Jane Anger), Michael Urie (William Shakespeare), Ryan Spahn (Francis), Talene Monahon (Anne Hathaway), Geoffrey Besser (Plague Screecher/Peasant Woman), Saron Araia (u/s Jane Anger), Bowen Fox (us, William Shakespeare/Francis), Anna Takayo Walden (u/s Anne Hathaway)

Scenic Designer: Kristen Robinson
Costume Designer: Andrea Hood
Lighting Designer: Stacey Derosier
Original Music and Sound Design: Lindsay Jones
Special Effects Design by Jeremy Chernick
Fight Choreographer: Sean Michael Chin
Resident Dramaturg: Drew Lichtenberg
Original Casting: Claire Yenson
Resident Casting Director: Danica Rodriguez
Assistant Director: Ashley Mapley-Brittle
Production Stage Manager: Marne Anderson
Production Assistant: Heather Janahy Ogden
Assistant Set Designer: Daniel Russo
Associate Sound Designer: Justin Schmitz
Assistant Special Effects Design: Katia Carmichael & Lillis Meeh
Costume Design Assistant: Lily Komarow
Head of Voice & Text: Lisa Beley
Assistant Stage manager: Dayne Sundman
Stage Management Swing: Lauren Pekel
Simon Godwin: Artistic Director
Chris Jennings: Executive Director
Director of Equity & Belonging: LeeAnét Noble

SEE ALSO:
Michael Urie and Ryan Spahn spill the tea on ‘Jane Anger’ at STC
(interview feature by Nicole Hertvik, December 15, 2022)