The set of The Roaring Girle, a dreadfully freewheeling adaptation of the Jacobean play by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, mashes together images from Renaissance England and today’s New York. In front of buildings imitating the style of London circa 1610, plastic awnings jut out with advertisements for an Internet site. A character wears a Jacobean-style top unbuttoned so the audience can see his Harley-Davidson T-shirt underneath. A man propositions a woman: “We’ll be merry and lie together,” and the woman responds contemptuously, “That’s so 1611.” The humor, amusing enough at first, wears thin after three minutes. After two and a half hours of these gags, anyone prone to tooth-grinding will have submitted his rear molars to serious wear and tear.
Middleton and Dekker wrote their play based on an actual contemporary of theirs, Mary Frith, who caused a tumult by roving through London in male clothing. Modern academics who’ve rediscovered the otherwise forgotten play mostly debate whether the authors’ Mary—Moll Cutpurse—shook or shored up the social order. Alice Tuan, the playwright responsible—or culpable—for the current adaptation, takes no discernible position on the matter. She tries to heighten Moll’s subversiveness by making her a playwright, but this allegedly modernizing touch seems outdated and quaint at a time when playwrights excel mainly at subverting their own high-minded intentions. The striking, lanky figure of Okwui Okpokwasili, the actor playing Moll, has caught the eye of directors such as Richard Foreman, but there’s nothing threatening in the smirking portrayal of her role. Okpokwasili seems desperate for the audience’s affection, but her longing for approval ill suits a historical character whose defining trait was not giving a damn if her behavior offended.
Tuan has won praise for her previous work, and director Melanie Joseph has staged multiple Obie-winning productions. What went wrong? The presence of John Epperson, an actor renowned for his drag persona, Lypsinka, suggests that Tuan and Joseph aspired to camp, but the rest of the cast lacks the requisite flair. Tuan aims for political satire, but every shot proves a dummy. Anachronistic references come and go without any sense of purpose or ingenuity. “Did you see The Chair?” one character asks. “Yeah, the Execution Channel rocks!” comes the answer. End of “joke.” Secretary Rumsfeld’s spiel about “unknown unknowns” is recited—but it’s hard to parody a man who’s a parody of himself. The Roaring Girle never roars: It snidely touches on topical political issues (free speech, the death penalty, anti-smoking laws), but where’s the bite? The mockery has the depth of collegiate cafeteria banter. “Roar!” Moll commands toward the end of the play. Roar, indeed.