'The Roaring Girl': Classical Actors Ensemble celebrates girl power in 1611

Lou Bedor III

Lou Bedor III

“For all the advances our world has made,” writes director Joseph Papke in a program note for The Roaring Girl, “people have changed very little in 400 years.” Classical Actors Ensemble’s spirited production of this prescient play demonstrates Papke’s point so vividly, you won’t know whether to laugh or cry. 

Writers Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker have waited a while for their 1611 script to have its Twin Cities premiere, but it was worth it to have a production that opens with a band of actors in period costume tooting merrily away at Lily Allen’s wry rocker “LDN.”

Several more covers follow prior to the show and during intermission, but fortunately—except for an awkwardly interpolated “Bad Reputation”—Papke forgoes the postmodern approach in a production that honors the text and the spirit of this fascinating early modern play.

The eponymous Roaring Girl is Moll Cutpurse, inspired by the subversive historical figure of Mary Frith. Cutpurse goes about in trousers, making merry with men and refusing to be defined by her gender. Middleton and Dekker had great affection for Moll, shaming those who judge her by her dress instead of her character. Lovably embodied by Meredith Kind, this Cutpurse is a good-hearted bon vivant who’s blissfully comfortable in her own skin.

The play’s central plot turns on the suspicion of Sir Alexander (Randall J. Funk) that his son Sebastian (Avi Aharoni) is pursuing Moll. In fact, Sebastian is head over heels for Mary Fitzallard (Madeleine Farley), a noble soul who’s also unfairly scorned by his proud papa. In cahoots with Moll, the young couple set out to teach Sir Alexander a lesson about love and tolerance.

That’s just one of several stories to unfold in this sprawling play. Modern audiences could probably do without the subplots about a mistrusted tailor’s wife (Kaija Pellinen) and a rake (Joe Wiener) who’s exploiting the smitten wife (Samantha V. Papke) of the local apothecary (H. William Kirsch). Still, these side stories are played so warmly and accessibly that they avoid overstaying their welcome.

Papke and scenic designer Dietrich Poppen turn Gremlin Theatre’s thrust stage into a cozy village, with actors coming and going from all four corners. The play’s huge cast populates the band’s various configurations and provides a convivial roar every time a tavern door opens—which is often.

In an epilogue, Moll describes a painter who, in trying to satisfy everyone with his portrait of a woman, creates a visage combining theoretically ideal features to ultimately “monstrous” effect. The metaphor speaks to all—women in particular—who are judged for falling short of some fictional ideal. It’s both sobering and inspiring to see a Roaring Girl calling out that bullshit way back in the 17th century.

The Roaring Girl
Gremlin Theatre
550 Vandalia St., St. Paul
651-321-4024; through March 18