“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.