In a new prologue written by David Grimm for Susanna Centlivre’s The Gaming Table, Tonya Beckman Ross promises verbal virtuosity and laughs. It is a promise that is kept in spades by Folger Theatre’s sparkling and witty production of this Restoration era comedy.
In this story, the two leading ladies love gaming over love. The aptly-named Lady Reveller (Judy Jesneck) runs a gaming table for her friends while avoiding the ardent pursuit of Lord Worthy ((Marcus Kyd). Mrs. Sago (Tonya Beckman Ross) schemes to raise a stake from gambling by manipulating her infatuated husband (Darius Pierce).
Other potential romantic couplings abound. The bombastic Sir Richard Plainman (Michael Willis) is determined to marry Lady Reveller’s young cousin Valeria to a larger-than-life navy captain (Michael Glenn). Valeria (Emily Trask) is more interested in the young Ensign Lovely (Robbie Gay) and her studies in natural philosophy, which often involves dissections which can both tickle the funnybone and threaten to turn the stomach.
Finally, the foppish Sir James Courtly (Michael Milligan), who offers advice to Lord Worthy, seems mostly immune to control by feminine charms. Yet even he finds himself entranced by the moral and lovely Lady Lucy (Katie deBuys).
Even if you did not know that The Gaming Table is one of the rare 18th century comedies written by a woman, you could sense a woman’s hand. All of the female characters are strong and well-rounded. Both Julie Jesneck and Tonya Beckman Ross give bravura performances in the leading roles. Emily Trask lends sweetness to Valeria while finding the humor in her devotion to scientific investigation.
A real treat comes from Emily Townley who turns in what so far is the funniest supporting performance this reviewer has seen all year as the cheeky servant Mrs. Alpiew.
It would be easy to find satirical elements to discuss if this play was a school assignment, but sitting in the audience you mostly focus on how consistently funny The Gaming Table is. Director Eleanor Holdridge maximizes every comedic opportunity that the play offers and moves the action along briskly. Favorite moments include the amusing lovey-dovey cutesy scenes between Mr. and Mrs. Sago, the cast spitting (ptui!) when the despised French are mentioned, and the occasional asides directly to the audience (“God, I’m out of breath!” after one fast, funny set of lines). In particular, Michael Milligan gives a master’s class in how to wring out the humor from simple actions such as a flip of the hair, a laugh, or a half-hearted expectoration.
The entire cast of the The Gaming Room looks fabulous thanks to Jessica Ford’s glittering and colorful 18th century costumes. You can imagine how elaborate and wonderful the wigs are from the fact that three different members of the artistic crew are credited both with their design and their maintenance.
The basic setting includes a series of stairways that both facilitate the action and seem to symbolically invoke the crossways relationships between the mixed up couples and the interaction of different social classes. Look for a subtle element in the scenic design of Marion Williams in which a stairway and a lighting fixture are inverted, much like the scene from a playing card.
If one were to criticize the play, it would be for a relative lack of comedic suspense or inventive surprise techniques for bringing the couples together when compared to similar works of the genre. The new closing epilogue, again written by David Grimm and spoken by Tonya Beckman Ross, does serve to neatly tie up the play in a satisfying manner.
The Folger Shakespeare Library is currently featuring events celebrating of 1,000 years of women writers. The Folger Theatre’s entertaining production of The Gaming Table illustrates why Susanna Centlivre was the most popular female comedic playwright of her day.
The Gaming Table runs thru March 4, 2012 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street, SE Washington, DC.
The Gaming Table
Written by Susanna Centlivre
Additional material by David Grimm
Directed by Eleanor Holdridge
Produced by Folger Theatre
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (one intermission)
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