Feb. 10, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Succeeding at the Game

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library
(Clockwise from left) Tonya Beckman Ross, Emily Trask, Darius Pierce, Julie Jesneck and Michael Milligan play a high-stakes game in “The Gaming Table” at Folger Theatre.

The work of the playwright Susanna Centlivre, for example, who wrote during the late 1600s and early 1700s — a hundred years after Shakespeare — is prominently displayed at the Folger this spring. 

She was widely considered the most popular English playwright since the Bard, though without the same critical acclaim he enjoyed. 

Centlivre’s early life reads like a cross between a Grimm’s fairy tale and a Shakespearean comedy. Orphaned at 12, Centlivre ran away from a wicked stepmother and, according to legend, either was taken in by an obliging Frenchman or dressed up as a man and snuck into classes at the University of Cambridge. 

Eventually, she joined a theater troupe and started writing for the stage and acting in productions. 

One story says that when she performed the title role in “Alexander the Great” for the royal court, she caught the eye of the royal cook. They married. It was her third. 

Centlivre’s work was published — and stolen — by prominent men. But eventually, she received the credit and her work opened in many of London’s best theaters. 

Now Centlivre’s lively, sparkling play, “The Basset Table,” has been revived, retitled and updated by playwright David Grimm under the direction of Eleanor Holdridge. 

Grimm wrote an original prologue and closing for the show, both performed by the delicious Tonya Beckman Ross, who plays the saucy gambler, Mrs. Sago. 

The prologue sets the scene, explaining how the wealthy upper classes have the luxury of spending buckets of money, while those who are less well-off go bankrupt struggling to keep up. There is at least one arched remark directed toward “those two houses on the Hill.” 

When the action begins, Centlivre’s words, albeit edited down, take over. 

This is a fast, funny, wry romp that centers on the actions, loves and losses of a woman-owned gaming house. The cast is a group of tightly rehearsed and seasoned comedians. Many are alumni from other theaters around the city, such as the Taffety Punk Theatre Co. and the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Co., and they bring some of those theaters’ punk-ish sensibilities to the Folger. 

Like last year’s “Comedy of Errors,” this Folger production is a fun, smart night at the theater. But unlike “Comedy of Errors,” this show has a bit more heft to it. 

Several characters in “The Gaming Table” are based on real women, at least two of whom are featured in the exhibit. 

Lady Reveller — played with great charm by Julie Jesneck — is based on the Italian mistress of King Louis XIV, Hortense Mancini. Lady Reveller is pursued by the lovesick Lord Worthy (Marcus Kyd), who is eventually deemed worthy. 

Counterparts to Reveller are her two cousins, the morally righteous Lady Lucy (Katie deBuys), pursued by the hilarious, rich dandy Sir James Courtly (Michael Milligan), and the eccentric, studious Valeria (Emily Trask), wooed by a common soldier, Ensign Lovely (Robbie Gay), who may not share her class or wealth but does share her love of science and philosophy. 

Valeria was based on playwright and scholar Mary Cavendish. 

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