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.
Wren is a freelance writer.
(Tickets $30-$65. “The Gaming Table” Jan. 24–March 4. Folger Theatre,
201 East Capitol St. SE. Washington, DC.