World premiere adaptation of a Shakespearean Middleton script, wonderfully costumed, cleverly directed, and performed with tremendous energy. Superb fight choreography and a strong but feminine heroine highlight a delightful low-budget entertainment.
Adapted by Penny Penniston and Jeremy Wechsler. Directed by Jeremy Wechsler. Set by Patrick Clayberg. Lights by Paul Foster. Costumes by Stacy Ellen Rich. Sound and original music by Joseph Fosco. Fights by Ned Mochel.
Laura Jones Macknin (Moll), Katie Johnston (Mary), Jason Sperling (Neatfoot), Jason Bohan (Sebastian), Duane Sharp (Gallipot), Maia Rosenfeld (Mistress Gallipot), Don Bender (Laxton), Christian Gray (Goshawk), Anthony Roberts (Greenwit), William Sidney Parker (Jack), Jonathan Watkins (Trapdoor), Casey Hayes (Openwork), Roz Francis (Mistress Openwork), Charles Likar (Sir Alexander).
Shakespeare's Motley Crew (SMC) has been a part of Chicago's vibrant non-Equity theatre scene since 1992. The World Premiere adaptation of Middleton's 1611 The Roaring Girl marks their first-ever non-Shakespeare play, but certainly keeps with the company's tradition of ambitious efforts with large casts but modest budgets.
Director and co-adapter Jeremy Wechsler retains only twenty-five percent of Middleton's original text, revising, updating, and re-writing the remainder. The spirited troupe of seventeen overcomes their lack of budget with over-the-top hamming and exuberance. Wechsler, to his credit, reins the uneven talent within a well-paced and tightly controlled structure. The production plays as if Wechsler has granted his cast broad moments of silliness within a precision of short scenes.
The production begins as the audience first enters the theatre. Beaming tavern keeper Master Gallipot greets patrons with a tray of beverages, barking like a vendor at a baseball stadium. With the help of his wife and daughter, as well as Greenwit, Gallipot serves the incoming audience refreshments such as beer, cider, and soda, as well as apples and oranges, at no charge but a hoped-for donation. The tavern keeper, in his banter, encourages the crowd to snarl at the appearance of the evil pirates in the second act, and Mrs. Gallipot and daughter Mary induce the crowd into a "wave" as two young men perform a juggling exhibition. The actors are attired in casual Jacobean costumes - the men in boots, tunics, and hats, the women in layered pastel gowns - and for the most part remain in character on stage, referring to each other by character-name.
Wechsler stages The Roaring Girl within the Gallipot's homey tavern and inn, with a wooden picnic table and benches at center stage. A small bar stands at stage right before a curtained wall laden with tankards, ladles, lamps, and towels. Silhouettes of Cock and Bull adorn a dangling shingle. A small table and chairs occupy stage left alongside a vine covered wooden fence, and the upstage area is elevated, with Mistress Openwork's dressmaking shop at stage left with hats and garments hung along the wall.
The actual production begins when the stage clears, the lights come down, and the petite blonde "Mad" Moll enters, dressed in black pants, black turtleneck sweater, and black boots. Portrayed by artistic director Laura Jones Macknin, the surprisingly introspective and serene "roaring girl" sits upon the table for an opening soliloquy. The comically droll and disinterested servant Neatfoot follows, dressed in shades of blue and purple, and he introduces the romantic leads, Mary and Sebastian.
Middleton's plot of tangled romances is familiar and conventional, with the two lovers - he of noble birth, she of lower heritage - kept apart by his demanding father. The situational comedy features disguises, misunderstandings, and sudden surprises, and it all feels suitably Shakespearean, but the play is written - and re-written - with modernized and crystalline clarity. The young SMC audiences appear to have little trouble understanding and appreciating the re-worked dialogue and the ever-complicating plot, with Middleton's story not so much simplified as clarified and expanded.
Wechsler's slew of supporting characters are broadly drawn but wonderfully costumed in a splash of comfortably faded colors. The rogue Laxton, like Moll, dresses all in black, but unlike Moll, he reveals himself as arrogant and filled with hubris. He flirts with and swindles Gallipot's wife while attempting to prostitute Moll, who constantly raises her "price." An unrequited lover, "the sulking Jack," also in comically desperate pursuit of Moll, adorns his hat with more and more feathers so to be romantically "ornamented like a peacock." Jack, fancying himself "a rare poet," composes absurd sonnets of seventeen lines with phrases such as, "my love is like a pickled plum."
The earnest Sebastian is a bumbling and confused everyman rather than a high-born hero. Sebastian chokes callowly on pipe smoke, stammers his lines, and is the foil in a running joke as he repeatedly stumbles down the four upstage steps, even when moving slowly and carefully. Sebastian takes a literal beating in the play: Moll throws beer in his face, pincers him in an arm-lock, and later blasts him in the temple with five-gallon jug; and the increasingly jealous Mary crushes his fingers with a beer mug, then pounds his forehead upon the picnic table.
Wechsler, along with his co-playwright and wife, Penny Penniston, achieves an entertaining farce with this revision of Middleton. He imbues the show with charming features such as the amiably rustic tavern atmosphere, with gallants laughing and joking, throwing dice, and playing knife games by stabbing between each other's fingers. The story is enhanced with rousing original music and - especially notable in a minimally budgeted effort - exceptional Jacobean costumes.
The production boasts a spectacular fight sequence as Sebastian rises from nebbish to heroic as a daunting final confrontation approaches. Sebastian calmly out-duels a flustered Jack, who misses so frequently he checks his sword to see if it faulty. Then Sebastian and Moll are assaulted by six roguish pirates hired by Sebastian's father. The black eye-patched pirates swarm the stage as a pulsating original strings score rises and swells, and flurries of individual fencing clashes begin.
Stage combat is always difficult to stage well, and is usually less than exciting, but here it is unique and thrilling. Not only is there swiftly realistic movement, but combatants swing in constant side-to-side motion. There is rarely a single contest, so combat sequences feature two or three and sometimes four battles all waged at once. The entire Roaring Girl cast of seventeen crowds the set, with combatants shouting and moving quickly across the stage - as well as up and down steps, chairs, and tables. These fights are definitely not the more typical, slowly choreographed set-piece, but are instead a frenetic blur of motion, enacted with exuberant shouts and soaring music. The diminutive Moll even fends off three attackers with her single rapier.
At a sudden break, the struggling heroes are joined by Laxton and Jack, and more madcap fencing battles are then played to an exhausted draw. When the Gallipot family joins the fray on the side of the good, the battle begins anew with a sudden shout and a stirring re-emergence of music. The final furious fights are waged with ladle and cup and rolling pin and sauce pan, and the blows and injuries become more extreme and melodramatic. After a hard-fought victory, applauded spontaneously by an appreciative audience, Mistress Gallipot beats the roguish but heroic Laxton with a long loaf of bread.
The Roaring Girl concludes with an eloquent declaration of independence from the robust but feminine Moll ("I belong to no one!"), who affirms her individualism by admitting she is "too headstrong to obey." She defeats - and seriously wounds - Laxton in a final swift sword fight that emphasizes her physical skill and emotional resolve. Macknin's title character, played with great inner strength and a petite yet confident physicality, wins the unheard of right of female land ownership, orchestrates the engagement of Sebastian with Mary, and concludes this fine production with a warning as to how supposed "gallants" can at heart be "shallow lechers."
Note: A version of this article was edited and published in Shakespeare Bulletin, Vol.18, No.2, Fall 2000.