The Roaring Girl
Through Aug. 20
Little Independent Theatre
@ Murphey School Auditorium, Raleigh

As they say, you gotta have a gimmick. Mary Frith was a London thief and pickpocket; her nickname, Moll Cutpurse, referred to her first primary source of income. She also dressed as a man in public, cursed like a sailor, and smoked like a house aflame—activities that were equally frowned upon for women in the year 1600.

Surprisingly, however, her public disregard for gender roles and social norms earned her fame and a large degree of acceptance in King James’s England. In the years that followed, her notoriety led her to the stage in acts including trained animals, ribald repartee, and song. She expanded her portfolio after that, opening a store on Fleet Street, where she fenced stolen property and procured sexual partners for men and women for decades before her death at the unlikely age of seventy-five.

Seventeenth-century playwrights Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton loosely based The Roaring Girl, currently in production by Little Independent Theatre at Burning Coal Theatre Company’s space, on Frith’s public persona. But in this ribald comedy, they use Frith as an engine to achieve the conspicuously heterosexual goals of central characters Sebastian (Noelle Barnard Azarelo) and Mary (Denver Skye Vaughn), who must overcome the objections of Sebastian’s dad, Sir Alexander (Michael Parker), to be wed.

In a kinetic production, director Julya Mirro subverts this dynamic through cross-gender casting in eight leading and supporting roles. Designer Hunter Stansell ably abets those efforts with gender-fluid costuming, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. The striking combination of fedora, suit coat, suspenders, and a red-and-black bustier for Moll (Livian Kennedy) seems to pay clear homage to Bob Fosse’s Chicago—the city where Mirro sets her adaptation in 1946. By contrast, the imposing black suit and leather kilt of Sir Alexander, from the black patent leather pumps to the white lace stockings underneath, is initially distracting.

Mirro also challenges the playwrights’ agenda by giving Moll an unscripted, but similarly historic, partner: Rosie the Riveter (Laura Parker). They make quite the pair as they promenade past Vaughn’s second character, the laughably milquetoast tough-guy and spy, Trapdoor.

But with so many actors playing dual roles—and a strong John Paul Middlesworth covering four, including the ungallant Laxton—partial costume changes and acting choices don’t always clearly differentiate shifts in character. The production’s speed has a similar muddling effect on several subplots.

Degrading assumptions about the erotic proclivities of various sexual orientations have been with us for centuries. In a surprising twist, Dekker and Middleton give Moll the last word on them when she literally dresses down Laxton, in a sexual encounter—and critique—he isn’t ready for.

Mirro’s cast keeps things engaging, bantering with the audience and one another. The ensemble’s considerable energy propels us through the show’s intermission-less but fleet two hours. But added context—in program notes and choices on stage that more clearly define certain characters and situations—would likely give this Roaring Girl more coherence overall.