When we learn the unromantic truth regarding plays in Shakespeare’s time about women’s roles — that is, that they were usually played by younger men — it’s easy to chalk it up to the relatively restricted role of women in 17th century society. Virginia Woolf famously lamented the unhappy lot that would have meant being Shakespeare’s sister:
Meanwhile his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers.
However, I wonder if Ms. Woolf was aware that there was a rootin’-tootin’, actin’ and righteous playwrightin’ sister in Shakespeare’s time? A woman whose plays have endured to this day, and which come to us with the same spirit of social critique of a Jane Austen but in Restoration dress? I don’t think Ms. Woolf would have been quite as dour if she’d known there was a Susanna Centlivre making the rounds at Drury lane!
The Folger adaptation departs from the original 1705 play called “The Basset Table,” starting with the title: Basset apparently was not a game that aged well, but the spirit of the play centers on the gambling aspect of love, relationships, and social position; hence, gaming is apt. The play has been dusted off lovingly and updated for more current language by playwright David Grimm, but one of my favorite bits happens right at the beginning: the housekeeping monologue, delivered with sass and panache by Mrs. Sago (Tonya Beckman Ross). This little bit of whimsy, aimed at giving a brief play background and making the audience mind their manners, does more: it whets our appetite for what turns out to be a quick-paced, wit-filled evening with some very alive women and the men who love them. As for these ladies, each is a strong and stand-alone character — especially by today’s standards. Each of them, bad or good, has a clearly defined idea of what they want, be that to play until she brings ruin to her husband like that bubbly and incorrigible flirt Mrs. Sago, or to be a woman of science who does not wish to be told whom to love, like Valentine. Despite the fact that the play ends in a manner that conforms to 18th century mores, the way the play is staged blurs the lines between then and now.
“The Gaming Table” feels modern and fresh, and each of the actors bringing it to life does so in a wonderful and energetic way. The ensemble scenes are particularly strong, especially the dénouement. Emily Townley’s Alpew and her ample gifts… for the stage, I mean, are particularly fun to watch. Alpew’s cunning and scheming are crucial to the pace of the play, and Townley’s delivery and timing are impeccable; also spot on is Michael Milligan as the clever and dandy Sir James Courtly. From the way he moves across the stage, parading himself and flipping his hair just so, to his surprisingly caddish turn which turns out happily for almost everyone, he commands you to look at him. Sir James is the man who knows where he’s going, and he’s got the game figured out.
I have mentioned before how much of a treat it is to see a play at the Folger theatre: because of its dainty scale, even those seats farthest from the stage are still blessed by relatively uninterrupted sight lines. The fact that it’s a replica of the Globe theatre and that you can see exhibits like the one going on right now, on women writers around Shakespeare’s time, is really just a bonus. You don’t need an excuse: go.