“Jane Anger,” the feminist revenge comedy now onstage at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, is a sterling example of pandemic-era ingenuity — which is ironic, considering it was born as a searing sendup of that very concept.
Playwright and actress Talene Monahon developed the play’s first iteration in the spring of 2020. As the coronavirus pandemic raged and the theater community closed its curtains, Monahon found herself fixating on a common assurance: “Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ during a pandemic, so think about all the great art that will be written during this time.”
“I think it was meant to be encouraging and sort of hopeful,” Monahon says. “At the time, I found it pretty annoying and sort of a weird, capitalist [mind-set of] ‘produce, produce,’ even though people are dying.”
So Monahon channeled that exasperation into a play called “Frankie and Will,” set during the London plague of 1606, about a comically misogynist William Shakespeare penning “King Lear” while quarantining with his ambitious apprentice. She then recruited the real-life couple Michael Urie and Ryan Spahn to star in a virtual staging, presented by New York’s MCC Theater in May 2020 and streamed from the couple’s home.
That summer, Monahon went about fleshing out the short two-hander into a full-length play. Looking to add female voices to the farce, she wrote in fictionalized versions of two historical figures: the 16th-century feminist writer Jane Anger and Shakespeare’s enigmatic wife, Anne Hathaway. Rebranded as “Jane Anger,” the play transformed from a male-centered buddy comedy into an absurdist depiction of female frustration.
After “Jane Anger” premiered earlier this year at the New Ohio Theatre, director Jess Chayes and the four-actor ensemble — Urie as Shakespeare, Spahn as his apprentice, Monahon as Hathaway and Amelia Workman as Anger — are back for another go-round at STC’s Klein Theatre through Jan. 8.
“[Monahon] turned that little funny play that came from this little cynical idea into this huge, big play — capital P Play — that is actually about a lot of things,” Urie says. “Every time we get to the end of the play, I’m touched, I get goose bumps and I tear up because she’s made something new out of something old.”
Monahon wrote the full version of “Jane Anger” while working as a nanny to her sister’s children in the summer of 2020, unsure when or whether it would see the light of day. She was researching Shakespeare’s contemporaries when she discovered Anger, an author known as the first woman to publish a full-length defense of womanhood in English: the 1589 pamphlet “Jane Anger, Her Protection for Women.”
“I was just shocked that I’d never heard of it in all of my women and gender studies classes in college and all of my Shakespeare studies,” Monahon says. “I couldn’t believe that there was this wild, colorful, proto-feminist pamphlet that was published during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and it felt like an exciting opportunity to write a new character.”
From the archives: A Q&A with Michael Urie, who seems to be everywhere in D.C. this month
Although there were discussions about continuing “Jane Anger” virtually, by filming the play in an empty theater and streaming it to audiences at home, Monahon says she’s grateful those opportunities never materialized. For one, she wrote the character of Anger as a fourth-wall-breaking protagonist who directly engages with the crowd. And comedy, Monahon and her collaborators point out, craves audience feedback.
“You don’t know what it is until you place it in front of a live audience,” Spahn says. “To have that be deprived for so many years, with everything we were doing digitally, you could never complete the final stage because you never had that information.”
By the time “Jane Anger” was about to premiere this past February, the last piece of the puzzle was finding Anger herself. As the newcomer in a cast featuring three longtime friends, who had been working on the play for nearly two years at that point, Workman concedes she joined the production with some unease. But she found Monahon was eager to shape the role around her strengths — a process that has continued in the Shakespeare Theatre rehearsal hall as the playwright punches up her script with topical gags.
“That collaborative spirit is not always present,” Workman says. “Sometimes people are like, ‘What do you think?’ and they don’t actually want to know what you think. Talene is the kind of writer who’s like, ‘What do you think? How do you feel about that?’ and it shows up in the play within five minutes or the next day or in a week.”
With its gleefully anachronistic tone, nod-and-wink meta-humor and raunchy antics, “Jane Anger” makes for brazen counterprogramming as it follows a staging of “Much Ado About Nothing” at STC’s Harman Hall and precedes a production of “King Lear” at the Klein Theatre in February. Its portrayal of Shakespeare himself, stricken with writer’s block and a severe case of narcissism, plays as particularly irreverent at a company adorned with his name.
“I’m completely tickled and excited by the fact that this play comes between two incredibly detailed, amazing Shakespeare interpretations,” Chayes says. “To have sandwiched between those a play where we can gleefully skewer Shakespeare and the patriarchy, it’s just the best programming choice I could imagine.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Urie, the “Ugly Betty” alumnus who last year starred in the Netflix rom-com “Single All the Way” and the Broadway play “Chicken & Biscuits.” Returning to the Shakespeare Theatre, after playing the titular role in “Hamlet” in 2018, Urie is struck by the trajectory of a play that began as a DIY performance online — complete with a cameo from his and Spahn’s dog — and now occupies hallowed theatrical ground.
“It’s this amazing silver lining of this dark time, when we were all scared and sad and the theater was choking to death, and [Monahon] wrote this amazing piece of theater that we did under duress, almost,” Urie says. “Now we’re at the Shakespeare Theatre, doing a play about Shakespeare. To have taken the journey of this play over the last almost three years is extremely gratifying.”
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Klein Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW; 202-547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.
Dates: Through Jan. 8.