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Okwui Okpokwasili in The Roaring Girle
(Photo © Richard Termine)
"Acting is about subtlety," says Moll Cutpurse, the title character of Alice Tuan's adaptation of The Roaring Girle. If only the current production of the play, produced by the Foundry Theatre, heeded this advice. Instead, director Melanie Joseph seems to have encouraged her cast to portray their characters in extremely broad strokes: The actors often screech their lines, overplay the physicality of their roles, and baldly pander to the audience.

The Roaring Girle is loosely based upon the Jacobean play of the same title by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker. Tuan has kept several of the characters, the central romantic plotline, and even a few of Middleton and Dekker's lines. In her version, the play centers on Moll (Okwui Okpokwasili), a playwright, thief, cross-dresser, and political activist who agrees to help young lovers Sebastian (Michael Urie) and Mary (Jodi Lin) wed despite the disapproval of Sebastian's father, the magistrate Alexander Wengrave (Douglas Rees). Meanwhile, Wengrave is concerned that the loss of a shipment of tobacco may drive him to financial ruin. (Moll has commandeered the shipment.) There are a few other subplots, and a plethora of supporting characters; all of the 14 cast members play multiple roles, with the exception of Okpokwasili. But several of the plot threads are difficult to follow and do nothing to further the main story.

Tuan has also re-tooled the play as a political satire for the 21st century. References to the primacy of consumer culture, exhortations to speak English, and critiques of governmental incursion into the private lives of citizens pepper the text. The language is purposefully anachronistic and verse passages intermingle with the more common, everyday language that the characters speak. Tuan even imports outside texts such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's now infamous speech about the unknown. ("As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns," and so on.) The speech is first delivered as Wengrave's servant, Trapdoor (Andrew McGinn), attempts to imitate his master; then Wengrave steps in to correct Trapdoor's muddled phrasing. But since there's no clear context for the use of the Rumsfeld speech, it seems shoehorned into the play.

The visual aspects of the production, like Tuan's writing, are anachronistic. Actors wear 17th-century period clothing with contemporary accents such as sneakers, fanny packs, and T-shirts courtesy of costume designer Doey Lüthi. Louisa Thompson's set also mixes period references with present day elements such as an ATM sign. Prominently featured in the design are multiple awnings that advertise a Speaker's Corner where one pays a fee to have one's say. (This is surely meant to demonstrate that speech is not free in our society.)

Unfortunately, the majority of the actors seem ill suited to their roles. Okpokwasili does not have the kind of commanding stage presence that the character of Moll cries out for. McGinn quickly becomes annoying with his attempts at making Trapdoor into a clueless clown. Urie, while initially endowing Sebastian with a semblance of complexity, soon lapses into overly broad farcical behavior. But the worst offender is probably Lin, whose Mary Fitzallard drones on in an affected speech pattern. Curiously, Lin is much better at handling the verse passages in the text; a second act sequence that she delivers in the style of a slam poet is quite effective.

More consistent is the wonderful John Epperson (better known in theatrical circles as his alter ego, Lypsinka). This actor plays two roles: the long-legged performance artist Lavenderia and the nebbish businessman Mr. Gallipot. Unfortunately, neither role figures prominently in the main action and Epperson alone can't turn the tide of bad acting that predominates.

The most frustrating aspect of the production is that there are some interesting ideas embedded within it, especially in relation to gender, class, and sexuality. But they are not fully developed. For instance, throughout the play, all of the characters -- including the young lovers -- scheme to get their share of the wealth. But rather than offering a nuanced critique of capitalism, the production instead overemploys the simplistic device of characters shouting "ka-ching!" whenever a reference to money is made.

Ultimately, The Roaring Girle does not roar. It is neither amusing nor interesting enough to sustain attention, and the play limps along for a seemingly interminable two and a half hours.

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