Saturday, January 29, 2005

"ACT’s 'The Gamester' offers a rollicking good time."

By Stephanie Wright Hession
Arts and Culture Writer

For those looking to indulge in a riotous romp there's “The Gamester,” American Conservatory Theater’s current production at the Geary Theater. Based upon Jean-Francois Regnard’s “Le Joueur” and set in late 17th century Paris, this adaptation by playwright Freyda Thomas centers on Valère (played by Lorenzo Pisoni) a likeable cad who’s obsessed with gambling.

It’s overshadowed his life so much that debtors rap emphatically on his front door and his father Thomas (played by Steve Irish) disowned him. That’s disheartening enough but now his fiancé, the beautiful, naïve and very wealthy Angélique (played sweetly by Margot White), gives Valère an ultimatum: The game or her. Adding to the pressure, Valère’s crusty old Uncle Dorante (played hilariously by Ron Campbell) schemes to make Angélique his new bride. What’s a gambler to do?

With his dark-haired good looks and athletic build, Lorenzo Pisoni portrays Valère with vulnerability, charisma and agility as he tumbles and fights his way to a decision. A host of mirthful characters cross Valère’s path-each with their own agenda-and thoroughly entertain the audience, thanks to a plethora of high jinks, pranks and mischief.

Among them, Madame Sécurité (played saucily by Joan Mankin), a glamorous, affluent widow with an insatiable appetite for amour who satisfies it by lingering around casinos. Then when male gamblers find themselves broke but not yet ready to quit, she swoops down to offer them francs in exchange for a quick tête-à-tête. Those indebted to her include Valère who she stops by to visit at his shabby quarters. There, her dominatrix style seduction proves clever and swift. With a quick turn she removes Valère’s belt. Then she slyly pulls out a whip tucked away in her décolletage. With Valère staring at her helplessly while seated on a stool, Madame Sécurité strips off his shirt and coils the whip around his neck. Before he realizes it, he’s flayed on the floor with her on top. Following a chase scene they end up in his weathered bed where Valère quips, “They all look the same in the dark.”

Anthony Fusco delivers an engaging and delightful performance as Marquis de Fauxpas, a fancy dresser and an elegant speaker. That is, unless he’s around Madame Argante, Angélique’s widowed, cynical elder sister played charmingly by René Augesen. Secretly, the Marquis fancies her so in her presence he stutters and can barely speak. Stacy Ross portrays Madame Préférée, Angélique’s cunning, manipulative servant, with clever wit as her character exploits people and circumstances for her own plans and schemes.

Beaver Bauer’s elegant costumes beautifully convey the opulence of 17th century Baroque France, with the use of rich fabrics and wonderful detail. As actors take the stage in each creation it’s difficult to rate one more gorgeous than the next. However, Madame Sécurité’s red brocade gown accented with gold, with its sheer, resplendent cape topped with plumes of crimson feathers, proves exquisite. In another scene, Marquis de Fauxpas’ textured gold suit featuring rings of bright yellow feathers-topped with a petite hat with pheasant feathers-illustrates his flamboyant persona.

Kate Edmund’s uncomplicated, modern set with its ceiling-high playing cards-depicting the Queen of Hearts no less-provides the perfect backdrop. Director Ron Lagomarsino brings Thomas’ script to life with a frenetically paced and fun production. However, Thomas’ rhyming lyrics grow tedious despite the vigorous comic delivery by a superb cast. While this production showcases wonderful performances and stunning costumes, the script disappoints due to its lack of substance.

“The Gamester,” plays through February 6. American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets $15-$68. Call 415-749-2228 or visit