Amelia Workman and Talene Monahan in ‘Jane Anger’ at the New Ohio Theater. (Photo by Valerie Terranova)
During the first months of the pandemic, the message was everywhere. Items in the Washington Post, The Guardian and Atlantic explored the subject, and social media overflowed with memes about it: that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague so how are you going to use your time?
Talene Monahon gave this prompt her own unique twist. The playwright and actor spent the early months of our current plague writing a comedy about Shakespeare writing a tragedy during the Black Death. His two-handed game Frankie and Willstarring Michael Urie as Shakespeare and Ryan Spahn as his unpaid apprentice, premiering May 2020 through MCC Theater LiveLab, the one-act digital reading series that featured weekly streams of new works.
The lockdown ended, but Monahon’s work on the script continued. Inspired by the discovery of a feminist text by a woman of the same period, she expanded Frankie and Will in a full play, adding two female characters and changing the title to playbill-busting Jane Anger or the lamentable comedy of JANE ANGER, that crafty woman, and also of Willy Shakefpeare and his peasant companion, Francis, Yes, and also of Anne Hathaway (also a woman) who tried very hard. The new play debuted simultaneously in person and online in October 2021 via the charity streaming service Play-PerView. It’s back now as an all-in-person production, directed by Jess Chayes and currently on stage at New Ohio Theater until March 13.
The premise has Shakespeare searching for ideas to ease his plague-induced writer’s block. The key, he reasons, is a woman named Jane Anger, author of a feminist pamphlet. Not much is known of the actual author, but Monahan’s discovery of the pamphlet, titled JANE ANGER his protection for women and dated 1589, was also the key to his play. Published in response to negative opinions and portrayals of women’s character and intellect, it states its intention “to defend them against the SCANDALOUS REPORTED”. Despite a long history of studying Shakespeare and the Elizabethan era, Monahon had never heard of the pamphlet or its author; indeed, she could find almost no information about the author – a reflection of gender biases regarding women at that time and since.
“It was contemporary with Shakespeare, but so little is known about it,” she said. “While with Shakespeare, they did so much research. Obviously, there’s a lot we don’t know, but everything has been thoroughly researched.
The message of the pamphlet, considered the first work of feminist writing published in England, spoke to Monahon. She wrote the character of Jane Anger as the “cunning woman” and former muse of the Bard; she is played by Amelia Workman in the new production. In a practical twist, Monahan added another female character, that of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, to give herself a role in the series and thus reactivate her dormant Actors Equity health insurance, lost for lack of sufficient weeks of work during the pandemic.
The multi-layered irony of writing a play set during a plague to get health insurance in the middle of a pandemic was not lost on Monahon, who described his sense of humor as a 10 year old boy. Despite the gathered collars and beaked plague masks in the costume department, Jane Anger is hardly a Renaissance drama. Slapstick humor, puns, and plenty of sex jokes pepper the script, inspiring the thoughts of Monty Python and Mel Brooks. The writing reflects the relief Monahon felt while writing it, as she forged an escape from the fears that filled the early months of the pandemic.
“It was where my spirit wanted to live,” she recalls. “I think everything that happened was so traumatic, and it was in some ways heartwarming to write this really crazy comedy.”
Monahon’s play presents an unflattering portrayal of Shakespeare, portrayed by Urie as an arrogant egoist, unfaithful to his promises and his wife. This does not reflect any disrespect for the Bard’s pieces, Monahan said.
“I feel very excited about his work,” she said. “Unfortunately, I don’t know if there is a correlation between being a good person and being a great artist. Maybe he was a good person? It’s just fun to imagine that he can be self-centered and narcissistic and a bit dark. There are incredible artists right now who are not good people. This is an interesting question to be reckoned with.
Little is known about Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway, but that hasn’t stopped speculation about it, much of it sexist.
“Scholars have assumed for centuries that there was no love between the two of them, and she tricked him into marrying her, and he couldn’t be attracted to her because she’s so much more older than him and he left her in Stratford,” Monahon said. She noted that Maggie O’Farrell’s book Hamnet, a novel about Shakespeare’s son dying at the age of 11, addresses much of the male-dominated discourse on Anne.
In a nod to recent pop culture, Monahon’s performance as Shakespeare’s wife features well-known references to the Oscar-winning actress of the same name: Anne de Monahan is a serious wife, tough on herself and eager to please her husband and make him happy. a subtle nod to the actress’ common criticism for looking “boring” and “trying too hard”.
“I think it comes from a lot of our expectations of what we want women to be,” Monahon said. “So it was fun for me to combine the two, with a lot of love for actress Anne Hathaway, who is amazing, and also for the original Anne Hathaway.”
Not all of Jane AngerThe timely references of survived its two-year development process – a joke about baking sourdough bread, written during the first months of lockdown, was dropped from the script. Indeed, the shape-shifting transience of the art form is something Monahan feels now that she’s back on stage.
“I think there’s something incredibly special about being in a room with other human beings, and there’s also a kind of groupthink that happens to an audience, when there’s has a new group of people coming together and together deciding what kind of audience they want to be in. It’s really exciting, but it really feels like it’s leaning on that age-old practice of acting. It feels totally perishable.
There is no health insurance yet for an art form.
Carey Purcell (her) writes about pop culture and politics for vanity loungePolitico and other publications, and blogs on CareyPurcell.com. She has just published her first book, From Aphra Behn to Fun Home: A Cultural History of Feminist Theater.
Creative credits for production photos: Jane Anger or The Lamentable Comedy of JANE ANGER, that crafty woman, and also of Willy Shakefpeare and his peasant companion, Francis, Yes and also of Anne Hathaway (also a woman) who tried very hard by Talene Monahan, directed by Jess Chayes, with set design by Joey Mendoza, costume design by Andrea Hood, lighting design by Nic Vincent, original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones, sound effects design by Matt Frew, fight choreography by Sean Michael Menton and casting by Claire Yenson
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