Sunday, December 25, 2022

Jane Anger: The Disarming of Shakespeare

 What is a revenge comedy?


The Dresser asks because on December 24, 2022, she saw Talene Monahon’s Jane Anger at the Michael Klein Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC. In an exceptionally insightful interview on the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast from the Folger Shakespeare Library conducted by Barbara Bogaev and published December 20, 2022, the playwright said that she initially started writing about William Shakespeare during his plague period when he wrote King Lear. And yes, Monahon wrote Jane Anger during our plague lockdown. Part of her thinking was to make Shakespeare a bad man in a comic play. Her inspirational material was a series of revenge tragedies which are all bloody and campy. Monahon’s revenge comedy takes its lead from Shakespearean revenge tragedies, that includes Hamlet. So, despite the Monty Python humor, Monahon is getting to serious subject matter that involves gender and artistic success.


What is Jane Anger about? Set in the plague year 1606, Shakespeare (Michael Urie), in lockdown, is suffering writer’s block. A former lover of his, one Jane Anger (Amelia Workman), an actual historic figure but her real name is not known, is trying in vain to get her feminist tract Defense of Women published. She is determined and masquerades as a dead man with a large mustache but is foiled by the printer who knew of the man’s death. This, she climbs up a drainpipe and enters Shakespeare’s studio to ask him to sign for her, since women are not allowed to publish. He in turn wants her help getting unblocked and says once King Lear is written, he will sponsor her pamphlet. By her help, he primarily means he wants sex with her.


Before Jane makes her plea to the Bard, he takes on Francis/Frankie, an assistant (Ryan Spahn) who claims to be a sixteen-year-old but is a full-blown adult looking for his break into the world of acting. After Willy (as Jane refers to him) gets his Muse back and starts writing Lear, his wife Anne Hathaway (Talene Monahon) shows up and mayhem breaks loose.


The Dresser loves Jane from the moment she steps on stage to proclaim in direct address to the audience that she is a genius concerned about free will. In Jane’s window entrance into Shakespeare’s studio, she is dressed as a cunning woman, a medieval character (witch) dressed entirely in black with a bird beak masque who has curative powers.


Monahon as Anne Hathaway is everything that Shakespeare complains about—annoying with non-stop talking and, in the Dresser’s view, totally loveable for her childish behavior. Her counterpart is Francis Sir whose effeminate behavior is much like Anne’s—dependent, groveling, and exasperating. This is a farce that flips between Shakespeare’s time and ours with numerous breaches of the Fourth Wall.


One more question—how is it that Monahon is allowed to use the Monty Python skit about the Black Knight who loses his arms? Does she get away with play jism because Jane Anger follows the disarming of Shakespeare by cutting off his willy?


Jane Anger runs through January 8, 2023.