Long before Helen Reddy sang "I am woman, hear me roar," there was "The Roaring Girl." This rarely performed comedy may have been written 400 years ago by a couple of Shakespeare's contemporaries, but a current production by Classical Actors Ensemble demonstrates its uniquely modern outlook.

Playwrights Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker based their protagonist on a real woman — Mary Firth, who was notorious in 17th-century London for her insistence on male attire and for drinking, smoking, fighting and carrying on just like the boisterous "roaring boys" of her time.

Moll Cutpurse, as she's named in the play, isn't quite as rascally as her real-life counterpart, who was reportedly also a pickpocket and a fence. Played with forthright charm by Meredith Kind, Moll is a good-hearted woman who doesn't suffer fools lightly and always stands ready to help out her friends in their hour of need, using fists or wits as the situation requires.

That's why, despite her scoffing attitude toward marriage, she ends up posing as the love interest of Sebastian (Avi Aharoni), a young man who's really in love with the more conventional Mary Fitzallard (Madeleine Farley). Sebastian reckons his father will welcome Mary with open arms if it prevents him from marrying Moll.

Myriad subplots and secondary characters swirl around this central dilemma, as a collection of servants, shopkeepers and minor gentry carry out various stratagems. Some of these diversions yield delightful comic riches, like a cleverly executed scene in which three foppish gentlemen (Daniel Kristian Vopava, Tom Conry and Mike Tober) are introduced to the mysteries of London slang by a clownish trickster (Timothy Daly). Samantha V. Papke and Joe Wiener also provide some nicely humorous moments as a pair of jaded schemers, while H. William Kirsch offers poignancy as a perhaps too-devoted husband.

Other meandering scenes and bits, however, serve as reminders that "The Roaring Girl" doesn't represent either playwright's best work. And while director Joseph Papke does an admirable job of infusing this production with a strong sense of its lively period milieu, aided by Dietrich Poppen's simple, yet evocative set and intricate costumes by Lolly Foy and Marco T. Magno, he's perhaps a little too respectful of a script that could benefit from judicious pruning.

These shortcomings aside, there's much to like about this lively and ambitious production, starting with its singular characterization of a woman determined to live life on her own terms, societal norms be damned. Kudos to Classical Actors Ensemble for giving this timely and too little-known play its chance to roar.

Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.