by Adam F. Cohen . . .
Jane Anger was an English author of the sixteenth century and the first woman to publish a full-length defense of her sex in English. The title of her defense, Jane Anger Her Protection For Women was published in 1589. In the late sixteenth century, it was rare for women to write and publish on secular, or non-religious themes. It was also rare for women to argue against male supremacy, let alone crawl through Shakepeare’s window asking for favors. In playwright Talene Monahon’s hands – Jane is a vibrant creative force. And our modern-day audience gets a deft, arch satire.
Beset by a plague and forced to quarantine in his apartment, Shakespeare (Michael Urie) is beset with writer’s block, sexual companionship, and appropriate adulation. Relatedly frustrated by lockdown, Shakespeare paces the room of his apartment with his dim-witted, servile, servant man-boy Francis (Ryan Spahn). The servant wants to star as Juliet – and serving Shakespeare could lead to that. It’s 1606 London, and Shakespeare is fretting about how Ben Jonson and other playwrights are being productive during the plague.
Monahon provides Urie and Spahn with some silly banter – a practical “Who’s on First”. And she richly serves ripe moments for the pair to poke at Shakespeare’s genius, his narcissim, fame, and male sexism. Enter Jane to strike a Faustian bargain to further inspire Shakespeare’s creativity – and provide a welcome break from the overly long male banter. Here, she is revealed to be the “Dark Lady” about whom Shakespeare crafted sonnets, now working as a cunning woman, a type of medieval folk healer. With clear vision and life goals, Amelia Workman’s Anger arches eyebrows and prowls the stage. She’s a forceful cunning presence, quipping through the fourth wall, in an energetic, animated, astute performance.
To revitalize his career, Shakespeare settles on adapting “King Leir,” claiming his version — with a slightly different spelling of the title and characters — will be “naturally superior because of the language and the dialogue and the general vibes.” Just as Shakespeare’s on a roll re-writing-wise, enter his long-abandoned suffering wife Anne Hathaway (Monahon). Her arrival allows writer/actress to riff on the modern-day namesake. This interplay is cute but overdone. However, the character’s entrance furthers the plot and allows for pokes at misogyny, classism during plagues, bad relationships and the opportunity to advance one’s career based on tragedy.
Compounding fact, fiction, and farce, Monhon stirs a compelling one-act. Urie is at the top of his game, presenting Shakespeare as an almost fatuous influencer. Spahn is wonderfully adroit with his pandering servant, playing directly in the audience at times.
Under the direction of Jess Chayes, the production is lively and fully entertaining. The exceptional cast adroitly delivering Monahon’s timely ripostes with zest and intelligence.
Jane Anger plays through March 26 at the New Ohio Theater in Manhattan; newohiotheatre.org Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Photos: Valerie Terranova