Rhyme and Punishment

A boisterous play in verse nearly lures our critic into poetic excess

What is it about certain artifacts of our culture that inspires critics to respond in verse? Take the late British journalist Bernard Levin, who wrote a book review that began, "The verse of Edna St. Vincent Millay/ Strikes me as dull and faintly sillay." A Google search reveals many other examples, from Michael Benedikt's restaurant write-up "At Vassar I Taught; Or The Boston U. Student Cafeteria Pub on a Day I Almost Ate There in Sept. 1977," which appeared in the Massachusetts Review in 1983, to a Dr. Seuss- esque critique of the 2003 Mike Myers movie The Cat in the Hat by Steven D. Greydanus, film critic for the National Catholic Register, no less.

I have long been vexed by this habit of poetic commentary. It's faintly pretentious and often distracting, and I've never quite understood it. Until now, that is. Having seen ACT's production of The Gamester, I'm happy to report that I am at last beginning to comprehend why reviewers -- like gambling addicts to casinos -- are driven to bad poetry. For no sooner had I left the gilded stalls of the Geary Theater last Wednesday night than I was beset by an uncontrollable urge to treat The Gamester in rhyme:

The Gamester is a happy play, about a gambler who wins the day

Feathers and Fops: The Marquis de 
Fauxpas (Anthony Fusco) woos Madame 
Argante (René Augesen).
Ken Friedman
Feathers and Fops: The Marquis de Fauxpas (Anthony Fusco) woos Madame Argante (René Augesen).


Produced by ACT

Through Feb. 6

Tickets are $15-68


www.act-sf. org

Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F.

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How apt! A comedy to suit our present age when gambling is all the rage

From the slot machines of Vegas to the buying and selling of shares

Our enthusiasm for financial risk apparently never wears

Perhaps I'd better stop there.

The play, with its twisty plot, tells the story of Valère, a handsome rake, who risks forfeiting the love of his life, Angélique, through his rabid obsession for cards and dice. Angélique, in the meantime, agrees to wed Valère's stuttering duffer of an uncle, Dorante. (For some reason, she's lost her enthusiasm for marrying a man with little money and fewer principles.) Fleeing debt collectors and the attentions of Angélique's pinch-faced sister, Madame Argante, and the wealthy, middle-aged nymphomaniac Madame Sécurité, Valère throws himself at Angélique's pretty feet. She -- softhearted girl that she is -- takes him back, on the condition that he promise to stay away from the casinos. As we all know, French comedy wouldn't be French comedy without betrayal, so when naughty Valère is caught red-handed at the gaming table, his fortunes look dangerously like they're about to disappear into others' pockets yet again.

The fact that The Gamester and the play upon which it's loosely based -- the 1696 French comedy Le Joueur by Jean-François Regnard -- are both written in rhyming verse no doubt has something to do with my sudden bout of rheum, I mean rhyme. Playwright Freyda Thomas may have kept only the barest contrivances of Regnard's plot and characters, but she goes all out with her pastiche of the classical French comedic verse style. In the tradition of Molière (who died when Regnard was roughly 18), Regnard treats his audience to some romping rhymes:

Il n'est point dans le monde un état plus aimable

Que celui d'un joueur: sa vie est agreeable;

Ses jours sont enchaînés par des plaisirs nouveaux;

Comédie, opera, bonne chère, cadeaux

(There is not, in the whole world, a more lovely state

Than that of a gambler: His life is great;

His days are tied to new pleasures;

Theater, opera, good food, treasures)

Thomas, on the other hand, doesn't stop at elegantly satirical couplets. Her text swings erratically from sublime set pieces, such as the one delivered by dominatrix Sécurité concerning the behavior of women vis-à-vis men at different stages of their lives, to the ridiculous. As an example of the latter, here's Valère's little homage to Sécurité:

The last time I saw her, that buffalo,

She drank eight glasses of my best pinot,

Then turned to me, let out a mighty shriek

And I walked like a cripple for a week!

In aiming to imbue the supreme artifice of staged verse with a more palatable, contemporary punch, Thomas gives us the verbal equivalent of a night spent high-rolling in Vegas, when tossing a few quarters into some Reno slots would have done.

Like Thomas' verse, director Ron Lagomarsino's production is suitably loud. Inspired as much by modern-day Sin City as by 17th-century France, actors mince about the stage in brocade and periwigs even as the voices of Brat Pack crooners punctuate the scenes with sultry songs from another time and place. Feathers abound: Joan Mankin, fabulously vulgar in the role of Sécurité, wears an extravagant red-feathered hat. But she's got nothing on Anthony Fusco, who, as the foppish Marquis de Fauxpas (a suitor of Madame Argante, played by René Augesen), looks like a bandylegged Big Bird, bedecked in custard-yellow plumage. Meanwhile, Lorenzo Pisoni (Valère) and Margot White (Angélique) behave like characters from a British Christmas pantomime -- she a squeaky china doll in fluffy pink muslin; he a raffish swashbuckler with an Errol Flynn mustache.

From the moment the casino croupier appears onstage at the start of the show, rapping the floor with a large stick before accidentally hitting his toe, to the final scrum to place bets on Valère's future, Lagomarsino pitches The Gamester's volume at 11. The actors rattle off Thomas' challenging burlesque rhymes effortlessly, bringing a veneer of finesse to even the most potty-humored innuendo. But beyond that, there's nothing tempered about the performances: Braying like donkeys below the giant playing-card fixtures of Kate Edmunds' unwieldy set, each character is pushed to caricature. Relinquishing center stage for even a minute is out of the question for these extravagant types, and the result is deafening clamor.

The director is aiming, we guess, for excess.

In a play about pleasure, who could expect less?

The Gamester fits with today's feel for adventure

When even big players go bust, like Accenture.

But at four-fifths ridiculous and one-fifth sublime,

The show stirs me to respond in embarrassing rhyme.

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