For a play that puts so much emphasis on being seen, and being ostentatiously seen – from the fashions of Jack Dapper to the bargaining over clothing in the streets, from the performance of canting to the insistence on visibility in one’s own chosen guise – Treehouse Shakespeare Ensemble’s take on The Roaring Girl found much of the play’s humor in those characters who perhaps don’t want to be seen. Indeed, under Kara Hankard’s directorial oversight, it was often less the roarers than those seeking to silence the roarers who found themselves taking centre-stage.
Treehouse’s staged reading series – of which this was the third, following Kelly McKinnon’s staging of James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter and Beth Harris and Madison Mayberry‘s take on Sor Juana’s House of Desires – usually run to seventy-five minutes; Hankard’s The Roaring Girl ran to a whopping two hours, as if each of its large ensemble of comic figures was fighting for space to be heard. Fascinatingly, though, it was Ethan Goodmansen’s Sir Alexander who became most visible precisely in his efforts to stick unobtrusively to the shadows. This exposing stage (a heavy thrust, and with the ensemble sitting upstage when not in a scene, effectively in-the-round) allowed the company to draw attention to just how much Sir Alexander depends on his eavesdropping, and made great sense of that rare moment in an early modern play where the eavesdropper is spotted by his victim (Petra Shearer’s Sebastian, Alexander’s son) and becomes in turn the victim of a reverse trick. Goodmansen’s Sir Alexander seemed just a bit too big for the stage – stumbling over obstacles, bulging out from behind the upstage curtain, staggering around the outskirts of the audience, and completely unable to hide himself from the events of which he wanted a controlling oversight.
Sir Alexander’s overblown attempts (and failures) to control the scene offered a neat way to conceptualise the play’s generational conflicts. Backed up by Sirs Adam Appleton (Harris) and Davy Dapper (Jovita Roselene), Sir Alexander began the play dominant; his peers and the younger gallants Laxton (Austen Bell), Goshawk (Katie Mestres) and Greenwit (Mayberry) hung on his every word, a captive audience acting in melodramatic concert as he wove them the tragic tale of the abused father. Shearer offered a beautifully bathetic counterpart to Sir Alexander’s propensity for performative posturing, her Sebastian rolling his eyes at his father’s grandiloquent angst. Alexander’s privilege allowed him to hold the stage, even with those who might be disposed to be less than sympathetic to his attempts to control his son’s marital prospects.
Sir Alexander’s time, though, felt like it was coming to an end even as the play began, leaving him relegated to the outskirts, ostensibly watching but unable to control what was happening, however much he impotently gasped and waited for his plans to play out. Instead, centre-stage was the playground of the young and fashionable. Some dominated with little difficulty – Jess Snellings’s Jack Dapper, for instance, only had to appear on the scene in order for the other gallants to throw themselves at his feet in reverence for his style (a burden Jack wore lightly as he passed through to the stores with his page, Harris again, in tow). Others had to fight a little harder; Bell’s Laxton and Mestres’s Goshawk, for instance, may have had the confidence to strut across the stage, but both found themselves negotiating hard to keep their places.
It was in the negotiations that the production succeeded most thoroughly in creating a chaotic, hilarious evening of misunderstandings and schemes, while also sometimes somewhat losing the thread of the stories it was telling. The Roaring Girl (oddly credited by the company to Middleton alone, in a sad bit of Dekkerasure) is a densely plotted play, and the various shenanigans of the citizenry were played for every comic line that could be milked from them. Johnny Williams III, for instance, repeatedly stole the show as the affected apothecary Gallipot, beautifully juxtaposed with the swaggering Laxton who was trying to fleece Gallipot’s wife. Shearer, as Mrs. Gallipot, played coquettish with Laxton, giggling and flirting with the young brash man, who enjoyed every moment of attention he could get. But the return of the fussy Gallipot, prompting Mrs. Gallipot’s lavish and histrionic back story of a previous thwarted engagement to Laxton, reduced the married couple to emotional wrecks, collapsing and pleading with Laxton; Bell’s expert switch from Laxton’s initial befuddlement to a decision to roll with it showed just how much the ability to fake it til you make it was necessary for survival in this world.
Where the Gallipot/Laxton storyline got plenty of space to breathe, though, Goshawk’s entanglement with the Openworks (Margaret Levin and Mayberry) felt a little more compressed, albeit with one particularly outstanding comic scene as an increasingly panicked Goshawk waved arms and tried to rescue himself as the Openworks cornered him into an unavoidable confrontation, Openwork performing an increasingly threatening version of himself for the benefit of the quaking Goshawk. In a very odd textual choice, the set-up to the Dapper plot was present and correct but – unless I blinked and missed it, which admittedly was not impossible given the production’s length – dropped without resolution. Conversely, the cut enormously privileged Trapdoor (Julia Sommer), here playing the clown with both planned and impromptu adlibs for the audience (especially at those moments where cues were missed), whose roguish energy and lavish displays of humility and subterfuge threatened to make him the main character. Trapdoor shared something of Sir Alexander’s propensity for the sidelines, and the two of them had a lot of fun sticking up post-it notes which stood in for Sir Alexander’s array of watches, chains and other objects for Moll to steal. That is, the cut privileged anything that could be played outward for laughs – which the whole ensemble did, successfully and continuously – but in doing so, the actual through-lines of characters and plots often took a back seat to the immediate playing for a laugh.
This oddly left the title character a little adrift, an impression heightened by a deliberately eclectic and gender-fluid mix of costumes in relation to actors’ bodies which removed the distinctiveness of Moll Frith’s own gender non-conformity. The distinctiveness that Brie Roche brought to Moll was, instead, one more of confidence than of sartorial appearance. Moll – or Jack – took up space, striding with ease and possessiveness across the stage. Where gallants such as Gowhawk and Greenwit were characterised by nervous energy , Moll’s relaxed comfort in her own body set her up as having an aspirational dignity. Interestingly, Moll seemed to have exactly the energy that Laxton was aspiring to; Laxton’s own swagger was only diminished when coming into direct conflict with Moll on the heath, in one of the very few scenes that wasn’t played for laughs, as Moll – with bandit-style neckerchief over her face at first – backed Laxton into a pillar to prostitute him to her. But because Moll wasn’t fighting for space in this world in the way the rest of the characters were, paradoxically, her disruption to this world felt less, and the side of the play which uses Moll as a vehicle for others’ plots came through more strongly (an effect exaggerated by splitting the epilogue between the entire company).
The Roaring Girl is a weird play, structurally. Characters like Laxton appear to be central to the action, but then disappear entirely; the central love story between Sebastian and Mary has to take place in a very few scenes; and the complex subplots all try to do a lot in a short space. This reading gave space to everything, and even small parts like Sarah Scarborough’s Tailor – who bustled in and began measuring Moll up in the street – got their space in the limelight. Shearer and Levin, as Sebastian and Mary, worked hard to set up the stakes of their love story in their time together; Mary’s clown nose costume in the opening scene was a playful touch to set up her own agency, and while the production didn’t lean especially heavily into the queer frisson of Sebastian enjoying kissing Mary in male costume later (perhaps because the staged reading’s costumes didn’t make such gender distinctions as clear-cut), the equal connection between the two established clearly the stakes of the love story. But if there was a connecting thematic thread beyond the desire to play out for the laugh, it seemed to come in the competition for visibility, and the terms by which individuals either fell flat on their faces or found ways to allow themselves to be seen.
This certainly came across strongly in the production’s concluding scene as, during the marriage plot, Moll ripped off her disguise to reveal herself, laughing uproariously at Sir Alexander and Fitzallard (WIlliams) as they scurried to hide behind the pillars, shocked and appalled at the travestying of the ceremony. In this moment, the potential unifying purpose of the production felt to me like it asserted itself in the image of Moll – the one person in the production most confident in her own body, occupying space, and sending those who try to control the fates of others off to the sidelines. In moments such as this, the production’s subversive and joyful humour became more than just a joke – it became the means by which those who try to control others can be finally sent packing, and where those with confidence to be themselves could finally be seen.