Jane Anger, Shakespeare Theatre Company

This holiday season, we all want the same thing: peace, joy, and an evening of absolutely ripping William Shakespeare into shreds with great care, panache, and the occasional shout of "Plague!" wafting through the window. 

In the beginning of the pandemic, we all heard the refrain of "Well, Shakespeare wrote Lear in a plague year, just think of all the art that will be created!" Of course, many artists quickly responded with an "easier said than done," but that hasn't kept an advent of new plague plays from arriving on our stages. Washington audiences have already seen Taffety Punk's production of Our Black Death: Plagues, Turnips, and Other Romantic Gestures by Lindsay Carpenter this season, and now at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Jane Anger has arrived.

Photo of Ryan Span and Michael Urie in Jane Anger by DJ Corey Photography

Jane Anger is the creation of playwright and actor Talene Monahon, who was inspired by the idea of Shakespeare in plague-induced isolation and by a 1589 pamphlet in defense of women written by an unknown, pseudonymous "Jane Anger," and decided to bring them together into the year of 1606. The resulting 90 minute "revenge comedy" is a bit messy in the marriage of these two ideas, but exceedingly good fun. Its premise gives life to Jane Anger herself (a captivating Amelia Workman), a self-proclaimed genius and occasional sex worker who is determined to get her pamphlet published even if she has to go look up an old acquaintance by the name of William Shakespeare and win his endorsement.

The anchor of the entire evening is Michael Urie's Shakespeare, dripping with arrogance and wilting with the lassitude of his self-importance. Urie is simply an exquisite comic actor, and it's a delight to have him back at STC giving such a wonderfully assured performance. He's matched with Ryan Spahn's Francis, who brings the weirdest, wooliest energy imaginable to the part of a would-be actor granted the privilege to share Shakespeare's quarantine. The pair's scenes dominate much of the evening, as Shakespeare desperately tries to write his King Lear and languishes under writer's block. Enter Jane Anger, prepared to do whatever must be done to get her work published and shaking up the duo into a trio--or at least, until Anne Hathaway (Monahon) bursts in to see her long-estranged husband and turns the trio into an equally unhappy foursome. 

Photo of Amelia Workman and Talene Monahon in Jane Anger by DJ Corey Photography.

The play is rippling with jokes, riffing on everything from fellow early modern playwrights to more current pandemics and everything in between. Director Jess Chayes keeps the comedy pot bubbling but never overflowing into chaos, even in the play's most buckwild moments. The action (mostly) all takes place in a single set of paneled rooms, but the work of Scenic Designer Kristen Robinson and Lighting Designer Stacey Derosier reveals far more subtle variations within that space than initially meet the eye. The trickiest part of the production lies in the play itself: Workman kicks off the night as Jane and claims the stage for her own, but almost immediately cedes it to Shakespeare and Francis. Workman and Monahon bring excellent performances, but it's hard to wrest the energy of the play back out of Urie and Spahn's tremendously able hands, until, well. That would be telling. But it does unbalance the play, and leaves Workman insisting as Jane that this is her play--and she shouldn't have to remind us.

I am, however, a sucker for a good joke, and Jane Anger is chockablock full of them. When the play initially premiered in New York, I was disappointed to miss it, and so was delighted to learn that it would come to STC this winter. I'd much rather be sitting in a theatre and laughing than doing, well, just about anything else this season, so let's toast to pandemic plays from Lear to Jane, and give thanks for the artists who share them with us.


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