New Ohio Theatre’s hilarious Off-Broadway comedy ‘Jane Anger’ thrusts a feminist rapier at Shakespeare

Everything about New Ohio Theatre’s Off-Broadway premiere of Jane Anger, as you can discern from the extended title of The Lamentable Comedie of JANE ANGER, that Cunning Woman, and also of Willy Shakefpeare and his Peasant Companion, Francis, Yes and Also of Anne Hathaway (also a Woman) Who Tried Very Hard, propounds an ingenious laugh-out-loud post-modern take on The Bard and his less-enlightened times of sexism and male supremacy. Oh, wait . . . The ever-timely show about women’s social inequality and limited opportunities, presented by Jennifer Campos Productions and self-described by Brooklyn-based playwright Talene Monahon as “A Jacobean Feminist Revenge Comedy,” is a smart and witty mix of then and now, with a stellar cast that delivers the rapid-fire humor and salient message with spot-on timing and sidesplitting characterizations, under the spirited direction and astute eye of Jess Chayes.

The cast: Ryan Spahn, Michael Urie, Amelia Workman, and Talene Monahon. Photo by Valerie Terranova.

Inspired by the little-known (possibly pseudonymous) titular author of the angry proto-feminist pamphlet “Her Protection for Women,” first published during the reign of Elizabeth I (one of the most powerful women in history) in 1589, Monahon’s Jane Anger has been moved to the Jacobean plague year of 1606 (for another thematic parallel with our current world), as Shakespeare is suffering from a severe case of writer’s block, while isolated in quarantine, in his cramped London quarters, with his lowly apprentice and aspiring actor Francis.

In through the upstairs window crawls Jane, a “Cunning Woman” and former whore, here identified as Shakespeare’s past lover and “The Dark Lady” of his sonnets, with a plague-doctor’s mask, a sack filled with food, papers, and sword, and an offer to alleviate his loneliness, sexual deprivation, and “block” in exchange for his help to get her pamphlet published. After their kinky encounter, involving the inventive use of a ruff and a sticky pudding to “stimulate” his writing, he speeds through King Lear, until his undervalued wife Anne Hathaway, from whom he has been apart for years, also arrives by way of the window, making discoveries that change bloody everything.

Talene Monahon and Michael Urie. Photo by Valerie Terranova.

The script is loaded with supremely clever nods to Shakespeare’s iconic canon, spotty biography, and sexual innuendo, combined with uproarious anachronistic references to Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s on first” skit, the Broadway musical Wicked, the current audition process for actors, and more. And the outrageously funny scenes are interspersed with breaks through the fourth wall by the farcical characters, fully embraced by the terrific cast, to explain themselves in direct address to the audience and to solicit our support for their individual plights and plans.

Stage and screen star Michael Urie brings his signature comedic genius to the role of Shakespeare, portrayed here as laughably vain and petulant, insulting and competitive, and pansexually libidinous (except with his neglected wife). His accent, speech pattern, movements, and timing are all impeccable, as he whines with ennui, explodes with jealousy, and preens with gusto, as the universally recognized preeminent playwright and “the voice of All People” – with a “really cool earring.”

Michael Urie and Ryan Spahn. Photo by Valerie Terranova.

Ryan Spahn as Francis is the perfect comical counterpoint to Urie’s Shakespeare, with his slovenly appearance, missing teeth, and questionable claim that he’s only sixteen, and their silly high-speed banter and physical interactions. Expressly ingratiating and happy to serve Will without pay for a place to sleep on one of his floorboards and the chance to become an actor (at which he is unexpectedly proficient, to the point, he notes, of crying real tears) and specifically of playing the ingenue Juliet (as all female roles were then performed by men), he is also infuriatingly vocal in his appreciation of the master’s prolific competitors and cathartic in spilling the identity of “The Dark Lady” to Shakespeare’s wife, who up till then thought it was her.

Playwright Monahon, also a highly skilled actor, turns in another hysterically funny performance as the garrulous, ditzy, and self-deprecating Anne, who never fails to annoy her husband and, like history, can’t seem to remember who Jane is, until they find their common ground as irate under-appreciated women in a misogynist world.

Amelia Workman and Talene Monahon. Photo by Valerie Terranova.

Rounding out the excellent cast is Amelia Workman as the eponymous Jane, who is more controlled, intelligent, and driven, making biting comments and incisive observations, including the great loss it would have been to civilization had Shakespeare not been able to create his unparalleled plays – and by extension, what was lost by the historic exclusion of articulate women like herself from writing and publishing their work. It’s a point well made within the riotous over-the-top comedy.

The set by Joey Mendoza (featuring half-timber walls and leaded-glass windows), period-style costumes by Andrea Hood (including Shakespeare’s knee breeches, ruff, and earring), props (a chamber pot, quill pen, and other familiar objects), with Matt Frew serving as props consultant, and original music and sound by Lindsay Jones all evoke the Jacobean era. Fight choreography by Sean Michael Chin and dialect coaching by Amanda Quaid also contribute significantly to the show’s artistic authenticity, and lighting by Nic Vincent illuminates both the characters and the audience for a pivotal metatheatrical scene.

With the limited engagement of Jane Anger already extended for an additional two weeks, you have more time to enjoy this outstanding comedy and to contemplate its provocative message.

Running Time: 90 minutes, without intermission.

Jane Anger plays through Saturday, March 26, 2022, at New Ohio Theater, 154 Christopher Street, NYC, downstairs. For tickets, priced at $35-75, go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and booster, along with a photo ID, to enter the theater and must wear a mask inside.

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