18th-Century Material Girls

The gambling women in Folger Theatre’s “The Gaming Table” are experts at card games and at manipulation.

Anyone who has ever whirled away a couple of twenties at a Vegas slot machine or gotten mildly addicted to online blackjack knows the chancy appeal of gambling. Eighteenth-century English playwright Susanna Centlivre clearly did, too, since she populated her 1705 work “The Basset Table” with a pack of card-game-addicted courtiers. “Centlivre used gambling as a metaphor for the risks inherent in romantic relationships and court society,” says actress Emily Trask, who plays Valeria, one of four women who find themselves wheeling and dealing for their love lives in a country house-cum-casino in Folger Theatre’s modernized version of the play “The Gaming Table.”

The other richly drawn female characters — the gaming table’s instigator, Lady Reveller; pious Lady Lucy; and striving, middle-class gambling addict Mrs. Sago — find themselves as spun around by their hearts as by their luck at cards. “It’s great to see such vital, living, breathing women,” says director Eleanor Holdridge. “I think people find it surprising that, in that era, they weren’t just meek little wives or dashing seductresses.”

Centlivre’s witty dialogue (including naughty double entendres) propels the somewhat predictable plot, which includes cheating on husbands, cheating at cards and a good deal of tricking people into marriage.

“There’s really a sense that it’s all a game,” says set designer Marion Williams, who amped up the show’s topsy-

turvy plot with M.C. Escher-esque upside-down staircases and a mammoth queen of hearts banner. Physical comedy, particularly enacted by the hapless Mr. Sago (Darius Pierce, who at one point hysterically slams into several walls), ups the laugh track. “There are such extremes in the plot — one character is so in love with Lady Reveller that he throws himself on the ground — that it really makes the comedy happen,” Holdridge says. “I had no idea that this play was so physical, but as we worked with the actors, it just seemed to make sense.”

This frolic is headed for a happy ending, but it’s not without an unrepentant twist. “It ends up being a sort of dance — will these women stop gambling and reform?” Holdridge says. “You just don’t buy that they will totally change their ways.” And since their foibles bring so many laughs, who would want them to anyhow?

Backstory
“The Gaming Table” is an update of 18th-century British playwright Susanna Centlivre’s comedy “The Basset Table.” The play, modernized by contemporary playwright David Grimm, follows four strong women as they lose at cards and gamble on love.

Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE; through March 4, $39-$65, 202-544-7077. (Capitol South)

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