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Theater Review: “The Gaming Table” at Folger Theatre

A high-society gambling ring serves as sheer entertainment in this witty production.

Tonya Beckman Ross, Michael Milligan, and Katie deBuys in The Gaming Table at Folger Theatre. Photograph by Carol Pratt/Folger Theatre.

It’s fitting that the Spice Girls just announced a 2012 reunion, because Girl Power is apparently running wild at the Folger Theatre this month. Eighteenth-century dramatist Susanna Centlivre—whom we could dub “Old Spice” if we were feeling uncharitable—might lack the more enduring fame of many of her restoration comedy counterparts (Colley Cibber, John Vanburgh, William Congreve), but as a new adaptation of her 1705 play The Basset Table proves, she’s well worthy of a comeback tour.

Director Eleanor Holdridge has assembled an all-female creative team for the Folger’s production, which runs though March 4 (read our interview with her here), while dramaturg David Grimm has updated the script and renamed it The Gaming Table (basset, a European card game beloved by society mavens for its dramatic high stakes, is presumably too obscure a term for contemporary audiences). In Centlivre’s play, women are far more than just supporting characters. There are stereotypes, yes—such as the pious Lady Lucy (Katie deBuys), and the manipulative, shallow compulsive gambler Mrs. Sago (Tonya Beckman Ross). But there’s also Valeria (Emily Trask), who eschews romance in favor of dissecting small animals; as well as the business-minded and savvy Lady Reveller (Julie Jesneck), who’d rather take possession of a man’s pocketbook than his heart.

In Centlivre’s lighthearted, fairly frivolous tale, Lady Reveller, a wealthy widow, hosts a genteel gambling ring in her home most evenings, to the horror of Lucy and the delight of her conniving maid, Alpiew (Emily Townley). Romantic drama comes in the form of Lord Worthy (Marcus Kyd), who pines for Lady Reveller, and Sir James Courtly (Michael Milligan), who longs to marry Lucy. One empathizes with Lady Reveller, played gracefully by Jesneck, in not wanting to take such a whimpering simpleton as Worthy for a husband. But the male species is redeemed for the most part by Sir James, who’s as sly and underhand a trickster as ever graced a powdered wig. Meanwhile, Robbie Gay is charming as Ensign Lovely, a sweet-natured gent who’s devoted (somewhat inexplicably) to the prickly Valeria.

In any restoration comedy, bawdy jokes and buffoonery are par for the course, but Centlivre’s play (and Grimm’s entertainingly contemporary update) is more elegant than most, with the exception of one penis joke so smilingly delivered it reduced the audience to stitches. There’s not much a modern director can do to resolve the more awkward parts (an elaborate con involving attempted rape, Lady Reveller’s eventual “happy” ending), so Holdridge instead keeps things cheerful, drawing comedy and absurdity out of her excellent cast. There might be more to be done with Mrs. Sago, whose gambling addiction nearly bankrupts her husband and ruins her marriage, but as entertainment, the scenes between Sago and her idiotic husband (Darius Pierce) are hard to beat.

Holdridge’s nods to a 21st-century audience (prior to intermission, a character advises us to go “drink, or pee,” and another motions to an audience member to call her later) are echoed in Jessica Ford’s costumes, which are so lavishly over the top they’re almost cartoonish. Mrs. Sago wears a vast leopard-print confection, wigs range in various hues from cotton candy to tangerine, and there’s more than a hint of Alice in Wonderland in Lady Reveller’s bright red accents. Also drawing on the absurd is Marion Williams’s set, in which giant wooden staircases trail toward the sky and chairs hang upside down in an obvious homage to M.C. Escher. It’s an element of surrealism that feels a little out of place, although, as usual with the Folger, the elaborate use of space is impressive.

Holdridge has crafted a smart, funny, and tongue-in-cheek show, but she’s also working with a playwright one hopes we’ll continue to see more of, since Centlivre’s play is a welcome and refreshing alternative to the predictably male-dominated fare we see so often. To misquote Shakespeare, men may fall when there’s no strength in women—which the Folger reminds us of with this gem of a production.

The Gaming Table is at the Folger Theatre through March 4. Tickets ($39 to $65) are available through the Folger’s website.