About two weeks ago my family had a cousin come stay for a while, and I used that as an excuse to make her and my mom come with me to see “The Gaming Table” at the Folger Shakespeare Library. It’s a close adaptation of “The Basset Table,” a play by Susanna Centlivre from the early 1700s, and it’s run ended the day after we saw it. So my post on this show is sadly belated, but that’s what happens when you’re not always free on the weekends and are short on friends who want to drive to D.C. for some 18th century entertainment. In any case, I’m glad we saw it just in time!
You might wonder why a library/theater/museum so focused on Shakespeare that it’s got his name in its name, would feature a play from about a century later. Well, the library also features other European Renaissance literature, and works that have their roots in Shakespeare, which Restoration comedy certainly does. I had a brief but memorable education in Restoration/18th century literature thanks to one Professor McAllister, which has forever endeared me to drama from that time period even if I’m really lazy when it comes to furthering my education on the period’s literature on my own. So I was really excited to go see a classic, bawdy Restoration play, advertised as having a strong feminist slant, in the grand and Tudor-styled theater.
I could review the whole play and gush about how much I liked it, but it’s already gotten lots of positive press and you can Google for critiques more articulate and knowledgeable than mine. Yes, the costumes were gorgeous, the set was amazing, the play pretty much as witty now as it was in 1705, the adapted prologue and epilogue clever and funny, the actors and actresses hilarious in bringing their distinctive characters to effervescent life. I want to share my opinion on two aspects of the play that were brought up in just about every review: the feminist element, and the character Valeria.
The label “feminist” is no longer a simple adjective that basically means, “the belief and support of women being equal to men” – now it’s a buzzword that gets thrown around to describe lots of things, from “nazi man-haters” to “upper class white women only” to “including females at all.” Being written by a woman and featuring women as main characters is no indication of having actual feminist content. “The Gaming Table” turns it up to eleven: it was written by a women, it has strong female characters, the director was a women, the whole design crew (heads of set/costume/lighting/sound) were women, and it passes the Bechdel test.
One way I judge a piece of work on its feminism is not to count how many female characters there are, or even if said characters have values that match up with contemporary ideas about women and equality in contrast to the time and place setting of the story. Instead – and this is kind of depressing – I see if the women in the story are punished, in some way, in the end, because that was and is far too often the way writers “get away” with having outspoken, intelligent, and capable women as characters. Shakespeare, who else, has some classic examples: Katherina and Beatrice are subdued and married at the end of their plays. Victorian literature has a lot of ‘modern’ women that end up drowning themselves. For a modern version I’d point out all the females other than the Final Girl in horror and sci-fi films that are killed off.
So is “The Gaming Table” truly feminist? For its time, yes; for our time, mostly yes. There’s an egregious incident of attempted rape which totally disrupts the comedy of the play, a blatant example of the Date Rape Averted cliché complete with a Rescue Romance. It doesn’t help much that the audience is aware the attempted rapist himself is genre-savvy and doesn’t actually intend to do any harm – Lord Courtly paints himself as the villain in order to make his friend Lord Worthy a hero in Lady Reveller’s eyes, and have her finally admit her romantic feelings for him. Honestly, if your idea of getting two quarreling lovers to make up and get hitched is to make one of them genuinely frightened of being sexually assaulted, you’re not the benevolent matchmaker you think you are. Lord Courtly, in character, even brings out the speech about how Lady Reveller should expect and accept such treatment, seeing as how she openly behaves so improperly by partying and gambling all the time. It may or may not be an ironic admonishment, since it’s coming from the bad guy, but as some of the fallout from Lara Logan’s assault in Egypt proves, not an extinct one.
But otherwise the play was full of slapstick and wit, and the women end up getting just what they want. I can’t be 100% percent sure without the script in front of me and so I’m going from memory – I should have looked for that in the gift shop instead of buying a pack of cards and thinking myself clever – but the play definitely comes to a satisfying conclusion. Lady Reveller marries Lord Worthy after all, taking away the unique freedom being a widow gave her, but just because she’s a wife once more doesn’t mean she’s giving up her vivacious and gambling ways. Look at the character of Mrs. Sago, who pretty much bankrupts her husband and almost gets him thrown in jail – she manages to keep him wrapped around her nibbly fingers, and in the epilogue shows how she nicked off a little more coin and is ready for another round of cards. The proper Lady Lucy stays true to her principles and wins over the not-so-secret object of her affections, the Lord Courtly; I don’t know if I’d be so sure that he’s finished with his rakish ways upon engagement, but at least she’s very convinced and very happy. Even the maid Alpiew gets what she wants: extra spending money by charging suitors to see her Lady Reveller, and the cute footman Buckle.
That leaves the character Valeria. A ton of critics singled out Lady Valeria Plainman, scientist and philosopher, and with good reason. First of all that photo to the left of Emily Trask as Valeria doesn’t do her justice at all, it’s just one of the few online photos I could find of her in the role with a full face and costume view. In motion she’s more like Amy Adams playing a young Ms. Frizzle (whose first name, incidentally, is Valerie!), although this natural science enthusiast is more likely to dissect a lizard than name it Liz and keep it as a pet. To my knowledge The Scientist is not a stock character normally found in Restoration comedy, and it’s definitely not a character usually found in contemporary rom-coms. (The only example I can think of is the maybe the 1994 movie “I.Q.” which I haven’t seen.)
Valeria is a treat of a character, sort of an adorable absent-minded professor. Her enthusiasm for science and learning draws you in, and makes her likable even when she talks about using animals as test subjects. She makes no distinction between insects and mammals, which is both an unbiased approach and fairly true of real life scientists of the time period. She’s also not at all into the drama and angst of romance like her female companions, which provides a refreshing contrast to the other ladies of the play. And I love how it was reflected in her costume – even the modest Lady Lucy has a bit of a plunging neckline in keeping with fashion, but Valeria wears an academic Tudor bonnet instead of a fontange, and instead of a frilly and sparkly mantua gown Valeria normally wears what I believe is a redingote, basically a woman’s riding/hunting coat, and since they were made by tailors instead of seamstresses they had a more masculine style. Very practical, very cheeky considering her attitude towards creatures, and coded in bright blue. (Diverging here, but I loved the costume coloring for the female characters, they fit perfectly: bright and glittering red for Lady Reveller, pink and animal print for Mrs. Sago, respectable black with hints of purple and green for Lady Lucy, and striped royal purple for Alpiew.)
Ever better, she’s not the 18th century girl equivalent to Sheldon Cooper – Valeria is secretly courting Ensign Lovely, a sweet guy who wants to marry her, although he’d be ecstatic if she decided to go ahead and start sleeping with him before they’re legally wed. What’s great about their relationship, besides his funny take on how to trick and win over Valeria’s father, is that Lovely doesn’t seem to dismiss her scientific interest and profession. He’s kind of grossed out at her specimens, and again, he’d REALLY like it if he could only convince her to do the horizontal gavotte, but otherwise he finds her charming and in my opinion after they’re married Valeria just keeps on experimenting and learning about the natural world and he loves her for it.
Overall I enjoyed the play and I hope one day I get to see another production of it. If you’re wondering where I got my post title from, it’s a quote from this video about “The Gaming Table,” as explained by the people who made it come to life: