Editors' pick

The Gaming Table

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The Gaming Table photo
Carol Pratt/Folger Theatre

Editorial Review

'Table' is turned for 18th-century satire

By Peter Marks
Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012

With a buoyant air and a bouquet of ripe performances, Folger Theatre further expands Washington's classical borders with "The Gaming Table," a sendup of 18th-century social probity by the Restoration-comedy playwright Susanna Centlivre.

Name doesn't ring a bell? Nope, not with me, either. That's partly why this piquant dish, mounted with considerable aplomb by director Eleanor Holdridge - and dressed to the sensational nines by costume designer Jessica Ford - comes with a side of pleasant discovery. Centlivre, whom history records as a feisty, self-reliant sort (How, really, could she not have been?), was one of the few women writing popular plays in England at the turn of the 18th century, when comic dramatists such as William Congreve ("The Way of the World") were in vogue.

That the production cheekily interrupts the men's chorus we always get from that age merits a plume in Folger's tricorn cap. The new-play alternative for classical theaters is the old, neglected play, dusted off and polished up. The rehab jobs don't always pan out, although Shakespeare Theatre Company has had success revivifying "closet" dramas such as de Musset's "Lorenzaccio" and comedies such as Corneille's "The Liar." Folger Theatre's music partner, Folger Consort, has gone even further back in time, with a rare staging of an edifying piece from the medieval mystery cycles.

Folger's latest entry is another brief supporting the city's claim to elite status as a platform for the dramatic riches of the past. Centlivre's 1705 play has undergone remodeling: Its title, "The Basset Table," referring to a popular card game of the period, has been altered here, and playwright David Grimm (Woolly Mammoth's "Measure for Pleasure") was recruited to modernize the prologue and epilogue to this playful roundel of ardent men and the resistant objects of their affection.

Refreshingly in "The Gaming Table," it's the women who, by and large, dictate romantic terms. They're ladies who know what they want and only reluctantly yield to the entreaties of husbands and suitors. Lady Reveller (a becoming Julie Jesneck) prefers the intrigue of card-playing to the attentions of poor Lord Worthy (Marcus Kyd, in an endearingly comic turn). Conniving Mrs. Sago (a slyly persuasive Tonya Beckman Ross) keeps her dupe of a hubby (the pricelessly simpering Darius Pierce) around chiefly for spare change. With her addiction to science, Emily Trask's amusing, one-track-minded Valeria consigns for a time even winningly virile supplicants, such as Robbie Gay's Ensign Lovely, to a back burner.

Only the extravagantly bewigged courtier, Sir James Courtly - played by the terrific Michael Milligan with a fey wit so dry it might crack into tiny flakes - possesses the guile required to break down the will of women such as Lady Reveller and his amorous target, the morally rigorous Lady Lucy (Katie deBuys). To boot, there's a world-weary ladies' maid, Alpiew, portrayed with optimal levels of insolence by Emily Townley.

With its employment of rhyming couplets and laughter at the expense of decadent aristocracy, "The Gaming Table" subscribes to many of the theatrical and satirical conventions of its time. But it also seems, to some unusual degree, to assert the right of women to aspirations other than marriage. Lady Reveller's preference for the gaming table over the pathetic Lord Worthy - "Let my suffering end!" he declares, dissolving into tears - reverses the traditional association of power in such a relationship. And in the conjuring of Valeria's laboratory, where she clearly feels most herself, Centlivre's humor comes not at the expense of a woman's passion for science, but from jokes about the creepy-crawly things she likes to dissect.

Given the large number of romantic couplings, the construction of the comic architecture of "The Gaming Table" does take a bit of forbearance (although at a running time of a little more than two hours, it's not overlong). But Holdridge does a good job holding it together, in the harmonizing of the visual and narrative elements. The notion of intricate plotting is reinforced in Marion Williams's fine set for the Tudor mansion of Valeria's father, Sir Richard Plainman (Michael Willis): The layout is a series of crisscrossing (and eye-crossing) wooden staircases seemingly out of the drawings of M.C. Escher. (Because Pierce's hilarious Mr. Sago makes his first entrance at the very top of the stairs, a joke about the set's optical confusion doesn't get the grander laugh it deserves.)

And revealing once again that TV's "Fashion Police" missed its optimum epoch by about 300 years, Ford's gorgeous gowns, all beads and jewels and flounces and ruffles, imbue the physical production with a soignee irresistibility. The energy and design savvy applied to Centlivre stimulate an appetite for more work by people you didn't know existed.

‘The Gaming Table’ isn’t just playing the gender card

By Celia Wren
Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012

The Folger Theatre has a wild card up its sleeve - and a creative team packed with female artists is helping to play it.

The card is "The Gaming Table," a sly 1705 comedy by Susanna Centlivre, a once celebrated and hugely successful English dramatist whose works have tumbled off the public radar in recent times.

"Bringing her back is like a new discovery," says Janet Alexander Griffin, artistic producer at the Folger, which is staging "The Gaming Table" starting Jan. 24, as part of a broader Folger Shakespeare Library celebration of female writers.

It's a discovery that is unexpectedly topical: Though its plot brims with romantic intrigue, "The Gaming Table" is also a tale of compulsive gambling and income inequality - themes likely to resonate in the Occupy Wall Street era, suggests Eleanor Holdridge, who is directing the Folger production. The characters are largely "incredibly wealthy people who get to play games all the time - and then a very few servants who work their butts off," she says.

Holdridge, who heads the MFA Directing Program at Catholic University, and whose credits also include staging Taffety Punk Theatre Company's all-female "Much Ado About Nothing" last fall, has recruited a group of female designers to conjure up the world of "The Gaming Table." Scenic designer Marion Williams is giving a stylized, M.C. Escher-flavored look to the play's setting: the home of Lady Reveller, an aristocratic, strong-willed widow who delights in a betting-oriented card game called basset. (The play's original title was "The Basset Table.")

Lady Reveller and her well-born friends can afford to lose scads of money on basset; not so Mrs. Sago, a shopkeeper's wife whose wagering addiction threatens to bankrupt her husband - a plot point that gives the story an edge of class tension. Also in the mix, along with male protagonists, is Lady Reveller's cousin, Valeria, a hard-core science enthusiast who would rather dissect insects than play cards or marry.

As this abbreviated synopsis suggests, Centlivre, who died in 1723, peopled this script with female characters who know their own minds. That's not unusual for the dramatist, says Laura J. Rosenthal, a University of Maryland English professor whose books include "Playwrights and Plagiarists in Early Modern England: Gender, Authorship, Literary Property."

"A lot of people think that there's a kind of feminism in her work," Rosenthal said in an interview. Centlivre's plays abound in "strong and honorable female characters that go against the grain" of other theater from the period, Rosenthal says. Centlivre's sympathies with women even tie in with the high-roller theme of "The Gaming Table," says Rosenthal, noting that in early 18th-century England, gambling was one sphere in which women could control a lot of money. "While gambling was socially acceptable for women, it was also certainly seen as pushing the boundaries of traditional gender roles."

Centlivre's attunement to female issues shouldn't obscure her work's historical broad appeal. The famous 18th-century English actor-manager David Garrick appeared multiple times in her play "The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret," choosing it for his farewell vehicle when he retired from the stage; and some Centlivre scripts were repertory fixtures into the 19th century. But of late, the professional theater has been less welcoming.

"She hasn't been explored as much as she should be," says Griffin, who had long admired Centlivre's comedy "A Bold Stroke for a Wife" and saw an opportunity to shine light on the long-dead scribbler when the Folger Shakespeare Library began planning a multidisciplinary celebration of 1,000 years of women writers for this spring.

"The Gaming Table" stands out for its vivid female characters. "They all have different stakes; they all want vastly different things - and that just seemed so amazing to me. Certainly with [Centlivre's] male contemporaries, you don't really find that," Holdridge says.

Since "it's such a woman-centric play," assembling a team of female designers seemed a "fun" choice, the director said. She is particularly pleased with Williams's set, which Holdridge thinks will evoke the disorienting quality of a Las Vegas casino, and with Jessica Ford's costume designs, which adopt period styles but colors and patterns inspired by "pictures of really rich people in the Hamptons," in Holdridge's words. (Nancy Schertler is handling lighting, and Veronika Vorel, sound.)

When she was getting her production in place, Holdridge overhauled Centlivre's original verse prologue and epilogue, which seemed clogged with 18th-century allusions. To correct this problem - and to massage, for modern ears, some of the rhyming couplets that Centlivre had ensconced in the otherwise prose-form script - the director turned to dramatist David Grimm, who has demonstrated a fondness for theater history with works such as his faux-Restoration-comedy "Measure for Pleasure," which Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company mounted in 2008. "He does rhyming iambic pentameter couplets like no one else," Holdridge says.

When Grimm read Centlivre's play, he marveled at its freshness. "It appeals to a contemporary sensibility," he says. "It actually jumps off the page." Moreover, he points out, "We're watching these rich people win millions, and gamble away millions, in a heartbeat" while middle-class characters "really get it in the neck" - a pattern that strikes him as "screamingly relevant" to 21st-century trends.

It's precisely because of that lightning-rod connection to the present that the Folger is betting on "The Gaming Table."

"This play makes so much sense for us, because we're about connecting today with the past," Griffin says.