Social satire told through Jacobean renegade


By Davida Singer

Jacobean England’s Moll Cutpurse was a woman ahead of her time who became a notorious legend of 17th century London, the so-called “governess of the underworld” and the subject of a 1611 comedy by Middleton & Dekker. “The Roaring Girle”, now running through March at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, is the first American adaptation of that early play, produced and directed by Melanie Joseph of The Foundry, and written by Alice Tuan.

“I always try to create a new kind of play, and this was a chance for me to write out of my designated territory,” explains the L.A. based Tuan, who’s had six plays produced cross-country, and was commissioned by Joseph for the project in 1999.

“Moll was an amazing figure in Jacobean history. She wore pants, smoked in public, and was a pickpocket, musician and fencer. In the original play, it says she likes to lie on both sides of the bed-’ominsexual’. We’re not exactly sure what’s true about her, but it’s her humor and wit I really appreciate. Most of all, she’s a self-possessed woman who’s not afraid of being her own full person. She even gives up the security of marriage to do it.”

The 1611 play reads something like a Jacobean rap, said the playwright. It was redone twice in London, first as a musical in 1955, and once again in 1982, with the challenge always about how to forefront Moll in a work that’s all about her. Tuan worked very closely with Joseph on “The Roaring Girle”, and found herself writing nine drafts of the play before she was done.

“I tend to write toward the dark side,” she says, “and this was a personal challenge to do comedy and to show Moll’s real flavor. Some of what I’ve written is in verse, depending on the class of the characters involved. Moll herself was also quite an astute businesswoman – albeit of the underground – and this is really about the rise of the merchant class, something that Melanie found fascinating and drew her to the piece.”

According to Tuan, “The Roaring Girle” is taken from a citizen play – a work about a city – and her version is set a minute from now, with a mix of Jacobean and current reality.

“What’s interesting is that money and women’s position are almost the same in both. In my piece, smoking and theater have both been banned, so Moll smokes, and she’s rehearsing a play as a writer/director in a city where the magistrate has stolen the election and created a so-called ‘play patrol’.”

The satire also assumes a world where free speech costs dearly, and even the days of the week have corporate sponsors. There are star-crossed lovers, numerous Jacobean twists at every turn and Moll’s piece de resistance-the unlawful performance of her show-in protest of the authoritarian climate.

“It’s a huge costume play with fourteen actors,” notes Tuan, “so another challenge has been how to put up such a big piece in such a short rehearsal time. Our hope is that the result is more than pleasing, and that people who see this will come away with lots of questions”

What kinds of questions?

“The essence here is all about what it is to be a citizen. If we have all these rights, what are we doing about them? How is consumerism possibly distracting us away from our citizen duty in this time? Plus, how do we imagine a bigger being for our women?”

“In the larger picture,” she adds, “the questions stretch out to ones of how we can move on in the 21st century. Perhaps it’s with the co-existence of contradictory forces. And that’s possibly what democracy is, after all.”