Review: THE GAMBLERS (at Talk Is Free Theatre in Barrie, Ont.)

by Lynn on April 3, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Five Points Theatre, Barrie, Ont.

Written by Nikolai Gogol

Adapted by Selma Dimitrijevic

Directed by Esther Jun

Set and lighting by Joe Pagnan

Costumes by Michelle Bohn

Sound by Joshua Doerksen

Cast: Izad Etemadi

Nicky Guadagni

Alana Hibbert

Tyrone Savage

Giovanni Spina

Rachel Vanduzer

Jean Yoon

A wild ride of a show. Nikolai Gogol puts his laser gaze on the world of the shyster and out scams the scammer (in this classic from 1840). Director Esther Jun has assembled a cast of smart, funny operators who blow open that world.

The Story. Iharev is so devoted to gambling that he even has his own special deck of cards. The better to win a game against various unsuspecting marks. His latest scam scored 80,000 rubles. He checks into a small hotel in a small town ready to scam more unsuspecting folks. He meets three gamblers in the hotel who tell him of a rich landowner, Mr. Glov who would be a perfect mark. So they decide to go into scheming to get Mr. Glov in a game of cards to relieve him of some of his money. But it doesn’t go according to plan. Or does it? Or who is zooming whom?? Gogol gets you again.

The Production. Designer Joe Pagnan has designed a kind of ‘peek-a-boo’ maroon coloured set of a hotel suite (a bedroom and living room). The bedroom is partially hidden by a wall but you can still see what’s going on there through a doorway. The layout gives it a sense of mystery—and isn’t cheating at cards based on mystery? The maroon colour gives it a kind of brothel feel to it, that what goes on there is often not very nice. I love the whole look of it. There is a bed in the bedroom and in the main room a table with some chairs and a white covering. The furnishings etc. gave it a Russian feel to it.

Iharev is  played by a very dashing Tyrone Savage with a jaunty mustache, dapper, fitted suit, coat, vest and shirt and pants. (Kudos to costume designer, Michelle Bohn who captures the flair for clothes of high rollers.) Iharev checks his decks of cards that he keeps in a suitcase and ensures that his decks are used in the games.

He enlists the aid of a smooth talking, agreeable but questionable man named Alexei Zamukhryshkin (Izad Etemadi) who works for the hotel and will set up the card game. Izad Etemadi plays Alexei like a watchful imp of a man. When Alexei watches the card game his eyes widen. No one can widen eyes, say nothing, and bring the house down like Ezad Etemadi. He swigs right from the various wine bottles as he tries to guess who will succumb first in the various scams going on, Iharev or the marks he thinks he’s playing cards with.

Each character is created with a large roster of tricks, tics, and loads of details. Glov (the main mark), is beautifully played by Nicky Guadagni (a woman). Glov wears a stylish suit and his coat is draped around his shoulders. He is like a wise old man (only played convincingly by a woman). His moustache flops, his white hair is short. Guadagni plays a good natured father who laments of his children. Alana Hibbert plays Shvonev, a shark watching to see who is cheating whom. Hibbert is joined by Rachel Vanduzer as Krugel, very laid-back, hands always in ‘his’ pockets, who everyone thinks is German. Vanduzer is quiet but sizes people up. Giovanni Spina plays Gavryushka and Glov Jr.  Spina is the obsequious servant when playing Gavryushka, and the confident rich kid when playing Glov Jr.  Jean Yoon plays Uteshitelny (a man) with quick wit, quick movements like a person eluding being trapped and caught. Why cast women to play men’s parts in this case? Because it’s part of the world of the trick.

Once again director Esther Jun stages her actors to scurry around the set like so many farcical characters, following each other trying to keep up. Her subtle stage business also brings out the humour of the piece. For example, Alexei sits in a chair upstage,  taking everything in with the scamming, eating chips, swigging wine, but never pulling focus (at one point a cork pops adding humour perfectly to a moment).  But she also directs the cast to be seriously in the moment—comedy is serious business, if you telegraph the joke, it will fail. It’s always a pleasure to see the work of this gifted director—it gets better and better.

Comment. Nikolai Gogol didn’t write many plays. His most famous is The Government Inspector, also about duping a whole lot of people who seem to want to be duped. It’s about using the system to get ahead and if chicanery is called for then all the better. He writes of not very nice people who act badly to each other; are always trying to get ahead with their next scheme; who fail sometimes but keep on going.

In The Gamblers we have a variation on the theme of scamming the scammers. Each character does not seem to have any redeeming quality except charm and even charisma. Charm and charisma  are  always good. Besides we do spend a lot of time in the theatre with characters we wouldn’t spend time with in ‘real’ life and seem to enjoy it. Richard III anyone? Dracula? I rest my hand-bag.

In The Gamblers we almost feel sorry for Iharev as he is duped by six or seven people and is so upset about it. The irony is that he doesn’t see that he is as guilty as the parties who stole from him. The scheme to give Iharev his comeuppance is so masterful in its creation and so perfectly executed we are never actually sure who is being duped. That often keeps the audience on its toes. I like that and when you have a director like Esther Jun so in tune with the wild world of Gogol and a cast as gifted as this one that finds the truth and humour in every cranny of that world, the result is a sparkling yet dark romp of a comedy. But I wouldn’t want to play cards with any of them.

 Talk is Free Theatre presents:

Opened: March 29, 2019.

Closes: April 6, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes.


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