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.
by Susanna Centlivre, with additional material by David Grimm. Directed by Eleanor Holdridge. Set, Marion Williams; costumes, Jessica Ford; lighting, Nancy Schertler; sound, Veronika Vorel; dramaturg, Michele Osherow. With Ashley Ivey, Michael Glenn. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through March 4 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Visit www.folger.edu/theatre or call 202-544-7077.