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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER REVIEW

The Life and Times of a Jacobean-Era Heroine

Character has some parallels to Moll Flanders as she claws her way through the London of 1611 in 'The Roaring Girl.'

November 07, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fans of Jacobean theater may not rank with Cubs fans when it comes to frustration, but they come close. The bloody, stark, rip-snorting dramas that came in the wake of Shakespeare--those of Ben Jonson, John Ford, John Webster--seem about as rare on the American stage as a lunar eclipse. Jacobean fans can't fathom why, but at least they have some consolation from the Road Theatre.

This increasingly confident company is staging, not a Jacobean play, but the Jacobean era in Joseph Puterbaugh's new work, "The Roaring Girl." Though set in the rough-and-tumble London of 1611 and based on the life of Mary Frith, Puterbaugh's play shares more in common with Daniel Defoe's "Moll Flanders" of the 18th century than, say, Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi."

Indeed, Puterbaugh's heroine is nicknamed Moll--Moll Cutpurse (Karin Masseng), a wily trader in stolen merchandise and a radical feminist who loves men freely and dares to wear knickers. Like the later Moll, she lives to defy British conventions and seems to be in crime as an act of rebellion.

The two Molls have their differences. Flanders finds herself, much like a human cork, tossed on a stormy sea of misfortune. Cutpurse doesn't get pushed around by anyone and has what economists would call her market niche.

But the biggest difference (recalled recently by Alex Kingston's brilliant performance as Flanders in the film adaptation on PBS) is that while Defoe's heroine always inspires our sympathy, Puterbaugh's Cutpurse is a fairly acrid character, unfriendly, remote, egotistical and, in Masseng's performance, sometimes unintelligible. She's a hard woman to follow for a nearly three-hour play.

Puterbaugh makes it even harder on himself by constructing a play-within-a-play: He has a fictitious Jacobean playwright named Thomas Dekker (the good Jose Payo) create his own Moll Cutpurse play, which we see snippets of in rehearsal between the main action of Cutpurse's various misadventures with her thieving colleagues, spies and authorities. Just as Cutpurse has to play political games with Constable Smart (Scott Vance, who nicely blends bureaucratic righteousness with a bit of humanity) to keep her trade going, so Dekker has to keep his play within the limits of the censors. Life is meant to be seen as political deals and transactions.

*

It's more, though, than Puterbaugh can comfortably fit into one play. "The Roaring Girl" is an admirably ambitious work in its ranging view of social classes and in its complex shifting personal alliances, to say nothing of its running comment on the theater of life. But it lacks a passionate core.

Cutpurse herself rarely puts down her guard, forcing Masseng to play a fairly humorless tough gal with what sounds like the world's thickest Liverpudlian accent--a strange choice that only pushes us further away from her. (Stranger still, since the accents from the rest of the cast are sharp and clear.)

Her eventual run-in with the law thus ends up being a diminished piece of drama, with none of the strong undercurrents of social injustice that we feel with that other Moll. In fact, Cutpurse later bounces right back and finds a new line of work; she's so indomitable that her inner strength comes off as a kind of brute, heartless survivalism. She keeps going, and going, but Cutpurse doesn't win you over.

Handler's supporting cast is stuffed with nicely detailed portraits, including Matt Kirkwood's tragic Pickering, Theodore Stevens' scheming Skimmington, Jillian Blaine's wild Emma, Daniel Eppard's sympathetic John and, above all, Christopher Faville's evil fop Aniseed Robin. M.T. Monadnock's and Denny Miller's wood-planked set could use some of the actors' sense of detail, but David Flad's powerfully expressive lights and Mary Jane Miller's superb costuming put us in Jacobean land like nothing else.

DETAILS

* WHAT: "The Roaring Girl."

* WHERE: Road Theatre Company, 5108 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays-Sundays. Ends Dec. 15.

* HOW MUCH: $15.

* CALL: (818) 761-8838.

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