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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.

To be a successful woman in Washington is just like pulling off a daring card trick: It’s harder than it looks. 

The whole thing should appear rather elegant and effortless, and the trick should belie all the everyday realities — and annoyances — that come with playing the game of this town on this Hill. 

Female staffers, reporters, editors, actors and politicians have to navigate the same maze as their male colleagues but with different rules. To pretend they don’t is as silly as it is disingenuous.  

What’s more — as the exhibit “Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700” shows — women have always faced this challenge. And we’ve done it with some serious style. 

Don’t let the title of the Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition fool you. This isn’t a show of dowdy women wielding a pious pen. It features a mad prophet, the thrice-married litigious landowner and the Mancini sisters, who fled their husbands and ended up as biographers, casino owners and powerful royal mistresses.

“What we do here is to use Virginia Woolf as an overall organizing principle because a lot of people are familiar with ‘A Room of One’s Own,’” exhibit curator Georgianna Ziegler says. 

Shakespeare’s sister is a character in Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own.”

“Let me imagine, since the facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say,” Woolf writes in the 1929 essay. 

In Woolf’s imagination, Judith “was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as [Shakespeare] was.” 

The way Woolf imagines it, unlike Shakespeare, Judith was kept from exploring her potential, which led her to crumble mentally and spiritually. 

“She would have been laughed out of the theater and not allowed to write plays,” Ziegler agrees. However, “because of the work of many, many scholars [over] the last 30 years or so, we now know about a lot more women writers from this period than Virginia Woolf was aware of or could have been aware of.”

“[A] lot of the women who wrote in the 1500s and 1600s ... didn’t publish their writings,” Ziegler says. “They were written privately and circulated in manuscript.”

In other words, Woolf was both right and wrong about the many Judiths working in the age of Shakespeare. Female writers of the period worked mostly in secret, but every now and then a Judith would break out from the private sphere into the public. 

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. 

“Her contemporaries thought she was a peculiar women,” Ziegler says of Cavendish. “[But] she had enough money to do whatever she wanted to do.” 

The set, costumes and wigs alone are worth the price of admission. 

The wooden stairways that crisscross the stage were inspired by M.C. Escher paintings and refer visually to the lack of time and confusion of space that characterize today’s casino. Marion Williams makes the stage a perfect backdrop for the confusion that must come with gambling away a fortune or love. 

The costumes are rich in color and texture, a sumptuous feast for the eyes. They are incredibly detailed, though not exactly of the period. Like Grimm’s updates and Holdridge’s direction, costume designer Jessica Ford uses the period’s silhouettes as her foundation but creates something vibrant and lush that feels quite modern. 

“The women [in ‘The Gaming Table’] have their own stakes, their own voices,” Holdridge says. “From the scientist to the reformer to the gamer, each woman strives to get her goal.”

Even if that goal flies in the face of social convention, the demands of their men or even their own best interest.

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