You may have seen the meme. It began to circulate in 2020, shortly after COVID shut the world down: “Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the Black Plague. What are YOU going to accomplish during COVID?” For many theater artists, it was a call to keep producing art during the pandemic. For playwright Talene Monahon, it was a reminder of the privileges that men like Shakespeare enjoyed during the Renaissance and beyond.
“There was something about this meme that felt very sexist,” actor Ryan Spahn recalls. “Like, look at this wise man, be like him and forget your feelings.”
Using the meme as a starting point, Monahon enlisted actors Spahn and Michael Urie, a real-life couple and members of her COVID bubble of close friends, in a project that began in 2020 as a farce about Shakespeare (played by Urie) and his apprentice (played by Spahn) stuck in a London apartment trying to write King Lear at the height of the Black Plague. Spahn and Urie performed it virtually from their apartment, where they were stuck at the height of COVID. With the subsequent addition of two female characters, the project grew into Jane Anger, the “Jacobean feminist revenge farce” now playing at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Klein Theatre after enjoying a successful off-Broadway run earlier this year.
Jane Anger was a Renaissance writer whom you probably haven’t heard of because (gasp) she was a woman. Anger (or someone using that name) published a pamphlet in London in 1589 called “Jane Anger, Her Protection for Women.” It is thought to be the first writing published in English by a woman arguing against male supremacy.
And that’s all that history remembers about Jane Anger.
But where historical fuzziness is the bane of historians, it can be gold for theater artists. Although Shakespeare is a household name, very little is known about his life either. “The cool thing about playing Shakespeare is that we know so little about him,” Urie observes. “Our Shakespeare can be whatever we want him to be.”
Monahon’s script imagines that Shakespeare and Anger actually knew each other and uses quick-witted, ribald comedy and fast-paced dialogue to explore what their relationship would have been like if Shakespeare was a toxic goofball and Anger an empowered free thinker.
Urie describes the Shakespeare he is playing as “a whiny, petulant man-child genius.” (A giant portrait of Urie as Shakespeare dominates the set, reinforcing the notion that Shakespeare was a self-absorbed egomaniac.) “It’s part borscht belt, part Monty Python and part Titus Andronicus,” he says.
“In a lot of ways, the play has a modern sensibility. We don’t have to act like we’re in 1606, but we are people with a modern frame of mind stuck in 1606. Sometimes Shakespeare sounds like a millennial in 2022 complaining about his cell phone. The boundaries are quite wide, which is fun.”
Spahn, who plays a groveling apprentice who ingratiates himself to Shakespeare for reasons that only become clear as the play goes on, adds, “You meet these men who are behaving in this ridiculous, comical way, and when the women enter you’re reminded of what has been denied to them because of the society that they are in. They decide at this moment not to take it anymore.”
Urie is no stranger to Shakespeare’s plays. The Drama Desk winner and star of Netflix’s first gay, holiday rom-com Single All the Way, recently played both Hamlet and Romeo at Shakespeare Theatre Company before returning to play the Bard himself. “It’s pretty wild to be playing Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Theatre,” he laughs.
Both actors feel that their close friendship with Jane Anger’s playwright has allowed for an especially collaborative process on Jane Anger. “She trusts us so much,” Spahn says. “It makes for a very warm and collaborative room.”
It helps that Monahon wrote a part for herself into the script. Monahon plays Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife. “It’s very helpful having the writer physically inside the play,” Spahn continues. “It’s sometimes hard to explain to a writer who is sitting behind a desk what it feels like when something isn’t working. With Talene on stage with us, she can really understand on an emotional level what it feels like, which is a very rare thing.”
Urie and Spahn have both carved out niches for themselves as actors developing new works with emerging playwrights, like Monahon. “It’s really special to make up the rules as opposed to following them,” Urie says. Spahn adds, “There is something really exciting about being the first one to do something, something beautiful in knowing that an audience is hearing these words for the first time.”
Over the course of their 14-year relationship, Urie and Spahn have had many opportunities to collaborate onstage. The couple produced two virtual shows out of their apartment while in quarantine and just last month, Urie stepped in for Spahn when a TV opportunity required Spahn to miss performances of the off-Broadway play Good Enemy. “That was a way of collaborating that we had never really anticipated,” Urie recalls. “He taught me how to do his role in the play. I had to cram.”
Knowing they would be in DC through the holidays, Urie and Spahn were determined to make their stay here as cozy as possible. The couple rented a van in NYC, which they stuffed with Christmas decorations, their dog, their cat, and Monahon’s two cats. “We have a lot of our personal life here,” Spahn says. “We put up a Christmas tree and there are some presents under it so it feels very lived in.”
It helps that Amelia Workman, the actor playing Jane Anger, is a DC native. “We insisted that she invite us home,” Urie jokes. “And then Talene will come over on Christmas morning and we’ll have cocoa.”
But for all its humor, Jane Anger is a play that raises questions about who gets to have a voice in society, “particularly in the early 1600s when women were not given many opportunities,” Spahn says. “It’s a play that encourages people to seize their own narrative. And if you are trying to seize your narrative and no one is listening, speak up, and if people continue not to listen then start to get angry.”
Jane Anger plays through January 8, 2023, 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.