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Review: In Jane Anger, Shakespeare and the Patriarchy Get Taken Down a Peg or Two

Talene Monahon's comedy is now running at the New Ohio Theatre.

Ryan Spahn, Michael Urie, Amelia Workman, and Talene Monahon in Monahon's Jane Anger, directed by Jess Chayes, at the New Ohio Theatre.
(© Valerie Terranova)

Even as our period of sequestering seems to be coming to an end, Talene Monahon has brought us a vision of what isolation during plague time was like for Shakespeare in her comedy Jane Anger. In this 90-minute Renaissance-era romp, anachronistic references to our modern day are tossed about willy-nilly in a farcical takedown of patriarchies past and present. Unfortunately, the play, directed unevenly by Jess Chayes, feels unpolished. As timely and amusing as Monahon's ideas are, the play's humor is largely hit-or-miss, with as many chuckles as groaners and a main character who lacks the prominence she should.

For his part, Michael Urie plays Monahon's Shakespeare, an oversexed whiner, with petulant glee. Holed up in his Jacobean-era junior one-bedroom (Joey Mendoza's sparsely furnished set is appropriately claustrophobic), Shakespeare is going mad with boredom while shooting the breeze with his dim-witted servant boy, Francis (a hilarious Ryan Spahn, Urie's real-life partner), who dreams of making his onstage debut as an ingenue (the role of Juliet is on his bucket list). It's 1606 London, and Shakespeare is fretting about how Ben Jonson is spending his isolation period, so not to be outdone, he decides to get busy on his next blockbuster. He's been thinking about doing a version of Thomas Kyd's 1605 play King Leir — by simply changing the title to King Lear.

With this pair, Monahon has tons of fun poking at the notion of Shakespeare's genius and the sexism of men — as well as at Renaissance concepts of social distancing (you must keep one-pony apart). Whatever your feelings about the Bard, Monahon's pleasingly nerdy quips and gibes about Shakespeare's life, works, and the times in which he lived make for good comedy. We've seen this sort of treatment before (Shakespeare in Love, Something Rotten!), but she puts a distinctive spin on the Bard-mocking with lively banter between Shakespeare and Francis that at times feels like a lampoon of Waiting for Godot.

Things get a little more serious, and less funny, when Jane Anger (Amelia Workman) crawls in through the window. Jane is a self-described "cunning woman," a healer whose curative methods are scientifically questionable. She is also the mysterious "Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets, so she's come by to ask her erstwhile lover for a favor. Jane has been at work on a pamphlet that decries men's treatment of women, and she needs the imprimatur of a well-known writer to have a chance at its being published.

Michael Urie, Ryan Spahn, and Amelia Workman in Jane Anger.
(© Valerie Terranova)

Jane Anger was in fact a real person who wrote the 1589 pamphlet Protection for Women. She was unusual in her time for being a woman who not only could read and write, but who also had the courage to challenge the status quo by calling out men for their abuses. As a champion of women's rights and a pioneer of feminism, Jane Anger deserves recognition with other trailblazers we remember during Women's History Month.

That makes it doubly unfortunate that Jane is the play's least memorable character. Before she enters by the window, she makes her appearance at the beginning, in a fourth-wall-breaking prologue wearing a beaked plague mask (period-inspired costumes by Andrea Hood). When she returns through the window, she asks us, "Remember me?" as though afraid she might have already been forgotten. More memorable is Anne Hathaway (portrayed with breathless abandon by Monahon), Shakespeare's wife and future recipient of his "second-best bed." In Anne's prattling scenes with Shakespeare, Jane seems to recede from the play almost completely. "I had forgotten you were here and also I forget who you are," Anne says to her.

So have we. Jane's big moments are bookended at the beginning and then later at the end, when she and Anne finally get around to discussing the pamphlet in a sleepy, slow-paced final episode (after Shakespeare and Francis encounter a ridiculous fate worthy of Monty Python). But we're left with little else to remember her by. Alas, Jane gets only the second-best scenes.