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'The Roaring Girl': A 17th Century Sex Comedy

Everyday Inferno revives a rarely-produced bawdy Jacobean comedy at Access Theater.

Photo by Anais Koivisto

Sebastian Wengrave, a dashing young nobleman, wants nothing more than to marry his love Mary, but his father has forbidden it because of the lady's paltry dowry. So Sebastian comes up with a dastardly plan to win his father over, by feigning a new attraction to the most unsuitable woman he can think of, a crossdressing, sword-buckling commoner woman named Moll Cutpurse. But he is not the only one with designs on this mysterious figure, and while his friends and family try to ensnare her as a thief or a whore, we are left wondering how Moll maintains such a dangerous allure, and what she is getting out of such a rebellious lifestyle. And this play was written in the 17th century.

The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker is a complex and fascinating story of gender and sexuality norms in Jacobean society, with as many bawdy jokes thrown in as is physically possible. In Everyday Inferno Theatre Company's rendition of the classic, part of their "Punks & Provocateurs" series, the play is staged in an innovative "tennis court" style, with the audience seated at small tables on either side of the gallery space the actors come parading through. With little set but fantastic, elaborate period costumes to appropriately invoke the era, it doesn't take long before you have become fully immersed in their world.

The Roaring Girl is a true ensemble show in a style that may be familiar to audiences of Shakespeare plays, in which the lovers get no more time onstage than many of the other engaging characters of the cast, and the "low" plots of the common-born characters are more complicated and interesting than the "high." While Sebastian's plan succeeds without a hitch, the rest of his father's court are drinking, wenching and looking for trouble amongst the women at the town market. Of particular interest is the duplicitous young Laxton's courting both of the unwilling Moll Cutpurse and the more than willing Mistress Gallipot, despite the wishes of her husband.

Meanwhile, Sebastian's father hires a barely reformed thief to entrap Moll so that he can get her out of the way, while even a stroll into town to purchase a new feather for one's outfit can be fraught with danger. The playing space is regularly filled with dueling courtiers and ruffians, with well choreographed and engaging stage combat. And of course, all of that conflict centers around the mysterious young woman, Moll Cutpurse.

Moll isn't the only powerful woman on stage, however. In fact, The Roaring Girl is filled with unique, strong female characters who prove that you don't have to wear men's clothing to play an important part in the world. And though, in a show in which crossdressing is a central element, having female actors also play some of the minor male characters is somewhat distracting, this uniformly strong ensemble does a great job making the 17th century text intelligible and bringing a complicated story to life.

Malloree Hill as "the roaring girl," Moll Cutpurse, is refreshingly down-to-earth, a relatable figure despite her legendary reputation. Jacob Owen's Sebastian Wengrave is everything a classical lover should be, while his love Mary Fitzallard (played by Anna Clare Kerr) is as light and airy as she can be duplicitous and determined when the situation calls for it. Other particular standout performers include Sam Ogilvie as the foppish Jack Dapper, Erin Beirnard as the philandering merchant's wife Mistress Gallipot and Quinn Warren as the over-the-top, comical servant Gull.

While loaded with sex jokes to the point of becoming a gimmick at times, The Roaring Girl is a surprisingly insightful story about how complex love, courtship and marriage can be and how women find agency in their own sphere. It's a refreshing change to get to hear a classical story that you don't already know the entire plot of, and Everyday Inferno makes finding that out an adventure that the whole audience gets to go on. It may not be Shakespeare, but this play is certainly just as much fun.

The Roaring Girl plays at the Access Theater Gallery through June 21.

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