Off Broadway Reviews
In the play, Jane (Amelia Workman) is, indeed, a woman. She is, in fact, a former prostitute, now a self-described "Cunning Woman," a practitioner of the magic and healing arts, which comes in handy when you are living in the midst of a resurgence of the plague. She is in London to check in on her former lover, one William Shakespeare (Michael Urie), who is ensconced in his rooms on lockdown and stuck in the throes of writer's block. Also on hand is Francis (Ryan Spahn), a self-identified "youth of 16" (not likely!) who has wormed his way into Shakespeare's service.
To Shakespeare's great good fortune, Jane, who we are told was the inspiration for the bard's "dark lady" sonnets, shows up just in time to unblock the playwright sexually. And Francis just happens to be walking around with a copy of a play written by Thomas Kyd, a little something called The True Chronicle of King Leir and His Three Daughters. So, at least one of the trio is quite pleased with the way things are going.
As it turns out, both Francis and Jane do want something in exchange. Francis's goal is rather easier to meet. He just wants a job as an actor in Shakespeare's company. But for Jane, who is a far more cunning woman than she lets on, the stakes are rather higher. She wants Shakespeare to sign a letter that will allow her pamphlet to be published. Nothing important, she tells him, "just women stuff. Tips for hair curling and mutton preparation."
But promises made by prominent and self-important men are rather easier to be collected than they are to cash in, and over time, in the midst of a great deal of silly inanity, puns, burlesque turns, and the like, we begin to understand that Shakespeare is both "a great writer and a bad man."
This observation comes from the play's fourth character, Shakespeare's long-neglected wife Anne Hathaway (performed by the playwright, Talene Monahon), who has come to seek out her husband on the anniversary of the death of their son, Hamnet. With Anne's arrival, the play starts to take a slow turn away from buffoonery, albeit with a side trip into some Jacobean bloodshed. During the play's last section, when the two women are alone on stage, the conversation takes a more serious turn into the true contents of Jane's pamphlet, especially with respect to the maltreatment of women. If we haven't fully grasped it before, we will certainly rethink, as Jane and Anne have, of Shakespeare's frequent and offensively condescending tone, even when it is done in a seemingly joking way.
It makes for a striking change in the overall play, which up to this point has been performed as if it were trying to be a farce under Jess Chayes's flighty direction. The payoff is strong, but it comes at the price of sitting through a lot of untoward jokiness of the classroom clown and frat-boy variety.
Through March 26, 2022
New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, #1E, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: OvationTix.org