Picture it—France, 1696:
Boy (aka Valere) meets girl.
Boy gives gambling a whirl.
The Roulette table, swiftly rendered his nemesis;
Girl loses boy to a calling/addiction figuratively as old as the book of Genesis.
But ‘tis no matter; any woman in town will take him;
But doubly does it matter not as boy only wants girl who hath forsaken him.
Madame Argante and Madame Securite will swiftly come a-calling;
Sadly yet truly it really is but Angelique he’d rather be bal*&ing…
And uh…oh never mind…never mind… (See, this is why we leave rhyming couplets to the professionals!)
I enter the hallowed halls of Beverly Hills high school’s Theatre 40 with all the vim and aplomb of Pink Lady Rizzo Channing aiming to leave her mark on Rydell High! The wax buffed floors with noted flecks of gold and silver glint off the coffee pot on the refreshment table as a caustic reminder that there is no wine at this venue (and appropriately so I suppose, considering the setting). I walk past the trophy case of venerable and fresh-faced headshots, past the comfy, red, waiting-room-style chairs and into the bathroom—built for gnomes and dwarves it seems. In it, a short line (albeit not as squat as the stall doors) of mostly older ladies adorns the sinks. One of them enters, head high above the stall door. “Oh Ethel you’re so tall,” quips one of my cohorts to the front of this stagnant parade as chirpy giggles ensue.
True to form and once inside, the giddiness does not dissolve as the stall itself fails to disappoint with its inspiring messages: “You are beautiful no matter what they say. You are beautiful inside and out.” “Dream Big,” “Stay Strong,” all punctuated in smiles and hearts by these up-and-coming enterprising young ladies (whilst answering the call of nature) who both penned and somehow destructively carved these uplifting nostrums into the wood grain oh so thoughtfully. Down at the bottom however– a more sobering declaration: “Beverly Hills High School Sucks C&*k!” Aaaand my hope for our future female generation suddenly and swiftly dashed all in one fell swoop…! Argh, it’s always gotta be that one…one…hoodlum who ruins it for the whole bunch. Must we all stay in for recess now?!? No, and “nay” say I—I’ve got to go review a play!!!
…and a relatively educational show at that in relation to these hallowed halls and elvin stalls of learning. For imagine, if you will, a romantic screwball comedy of errors, (relayed completely in gid-inducing rhymed couplets) combined with an exceedingly stylized PSA announcement/rustic “The More you Know” NBC spot, and you’ve got Freyda Thomas’ The Gamester. Penned in 1978, this Moliere-style-inspired play, was initially written by Jean Francios Regnard in 1696 and originally entitled Le Joueur.
Nearly indistinguishable from a its old fashioned cousin, there are a few more modern day references here and there as Madame Securite will utter at the play’s opening, “When we do well, they benefit. The money trickles down…” along with a Black Jack dealer who will ultimately declare, “I wouldn’t be surprised if one day, whole cities were to be built for folks to play.” Referentially speaking, the audience will invariably titter. (Then again, could we expect nothing less from a work adapted at the height of the Disco era…?)
Centering around a young Valere (portrayed by an earnestly endearing Rafael Cansino—yes, the coincidental spelling of the last name minus a single “n” is not lost on me) and his gambling addiction, the world is otherwise (or could otherwise be his oyster-lest he steal the pearl to pay a bet). His heart belongs to the young and desirable Angelique (played by a sprightly and sympathetic McKenzie Eckels). His father Thomas (brought to us by a very concerned yet assured David Hunt Stafford) is well to do, but not unconditionally so as far as his son is involved. His servant Hector (portrayed by a comedically sound James Schendel) is a most loyal assistant and faithful companion whom, despite Valere’s financial woes, he will never leave, “I will stay. I love him like a brother—not that way!” Yet essentially, and to add to the dramatic tension, when it comes to gambling, “In this hall, the power of love can’t conquer all.”
The play commences with bill collectors rapping on Valere’s door, the choreography of which is most sprightly and delightful as Hector rhythmically opens and closes a sliding window attached to fend them off. Upon Valere’s return, the young debtor will swear off the game at the hands of one last celebration:
“How ‘bout a game of wist?”
Hector: ‘Scuse me, is there something that I missed?”
Valere will make a second oath that after today the game will no longer be of consideration, leaving Hector only to muse, “If I could believe this declaration, then pigs would fly in every nation.”
So ensues the steel line of tension which will encompass the balance of our story as Valere essentially, yet unintentionally, makes a game out of quitting the game—or making folks believe he will. To play or not to play that is the question. Angelique will wash her hands of Valere only to be paired haplessly with his, much older foul-breathed uncle Dorante played humorously halito-tastically by Antony Ferguson to bad breath induced handkerchief coughs, wheezes and gags at the hands of our other characters; Valere in particular as the uncle tries to talk him back into gambling after having reconciled with Angelique.
A couple of older lady suitors will attempt to woo Valere; A much older Madame Securite played by the stunning and cunning Elain Rinehart (looking about twenty years younger minus the costume and short “animal haired” wig as she has come to term it). Rinehart, a personal trainer in real life, breezes through the delightfully choreographed, slightly acrobatic scenes in which she attempts to strip Valare before he is completely assured that he would like to satisfy her for additional funds to feed his addiction.
“Should I refuse or should I play the game? Well in the dark, they’re all the same.”
Madame Argante, played by the comely yet cynical Maria Spassoff, doubles as Angelique’s older sister. Bitter at being slighted by men with only her money as an enticement, will she ultimately be wooed and soothed by the comedically foppish Marquis de Fauxpas, played by an equally delightfully buffoonish Scott Facher, but not before being unwittingly rebuffed by our heroic anti-hero in the form of Valere as she bitterly quips, “Am I so unattractive, such a sow, that he refused to give my field a plow?”
Our story rounds itself out with a few lovers quarrels and reconciliations, suggestive foreshadowings encompassing but a few keen pleasantries indicating who will ultimately be paired together in the end, and an exceedingly enticing showdown in the game hall betwixt Valere disguised as well…himself with blonde hair–(Though, if his still-dark-moustache is any indication, the audience certainly is not fooled as the drapes could never match the foundation!)–and Angelique disguised as a man, ironically resembling Valere. A rather witty and suspenseful competition will ensue, leaving Angelique to show Valere who’s who!
Will the two lovers reunite or be torn asunder.
Will Valere ever be forgiven all his blunders?
With eye catching costumes by Sarah Nelson and enchanted sets by Jeff Rack,
Once you’ve made their ken, you’ll never want to look back!
So go now, discover how our characters’ lives fare on…
In this singular play directed whimsically by Jules Aaron.
Now then procure your tickets in due course,
The Gamester runs ‘til August 24th!