Stage Door Review

The Gamblers

Saturday, March 30, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Nikolai Gogol, translated & adapted by Selma Dimitrijevic, directed by Esther Jun 

Talk Is Free Theatre, Five Points Theatre, Barrie

March 29-April 6, 2019

Ikharev: “Everyone uses a little deceit”

Barrie should feel lucky to have Talk Is Free Theatre as its local professional theatre company. It’s programming is easily the most imaginative of any small theatre company in Ontario. One feature especially attractive to lovers of classical theatre is its frequent inclusion of out-of-the way classic theatre texts among its offerings. Past years have included The Prince of Homburg (1821) by Heinrich von Kleist and The Libertine (1676) by Thomas Shadwell, works major classical theatre companies like Soulpepper or the Stratford Festival have never done.

This year TIFT is presenting The Gamblers (1843) by Nikolai Gogol (1809-52), another gem of a play left untouched by Soulpepper and Stratford. Both have staged Gogol’s best known play, The Government Inspector (1836), but The Gamblers is filled with every bit as much wit and its plotting is a marvel of “who’s zooming who”.

The plot focusses on the professional gambler Ikharev (Tyrone Savage), who has found fame in the small town he is visiting for having won 80,000 at a game. The local gang of professional gamblers is curious to meet him. After a test match the three gamblers – Uteshitelny (Jean Yoon), Shvonev (Alana Hibbert) and Colonel Krugel (Rachel VanDuzer) – decide he is their equal. They let Ikharev in on their plan to fleece the wealthy man Glov (Nicky Guadagni), who plans to mortage his estate in town for 200,000 to spend on his daughter’s upcoming wedding. 

The main difficulty is that Glov does not gamble. They invite him over and even after showing him the thrill of the game, they still can’t win him over. Soon, however, they have a bit of good luck. The elderly Glov, impatient with the slowness of the bank, suddenly decides to return to home and leaves his son Mikhail Alexandrovich (Giovanni Spina) in town with his power of attorney. Being a naive youth, Mikhail is naturally interested in gambling and after letting him win for a bit, Ikharev and the gang soon clean him out. The problem, however, is that it will take time for the recent heir to liquidate his assets to pay his debt to the gamblers. What happens next is a series of twists and turns that cause you to realize that we should not have taken anything that anyone had previously said at face value. 

That the world is caught up more in the illusion of reality than in reality itself is one of the major themes in Gogol’s writing including the play The Government Inspector, in which everyone in a corrupt town mistakes a minor official as the man sent from Moscow to review the town’s finances. Whereas as Khlestakov, the minor official, is surprised at how much power the town assumes he has, Ikharev in The Gamblers already assumes he has great power, especially with his custom-made marked deck that he lovingly calls “Adelaida Ivanovna”. 

The short play is filled with a huge range of comedy from the intricate plot itself to the gamblers’ extensive praise of their profession as a noble discipline and a even a duty. People waste so much good money. It is the gambler’s duty to acquire it and put it to good use. All the world is a game to Gogol’s characters. Their mistake is in thinking that they will be the ones who always win. 

Dramatically, one of Gogol’s most modern strategies is his use of Ikharev’s frequent direct addresses to the audience. Usually, when one character in a play directly address the audience, he serves as bridge between the audience and the stage and like the Vice figure in medieval drama or the narrator figures in modern drama like Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, knows more about the plot of the play than the audience does. In The Gamblers Gogol finds a new source of comedy in creating a character who comments on the action but knows less about the plot than we do. This is one of the most delicious aspects of the play and a sign of Gogol’s genius at comic invention.

Director Esther Jun has decided to use gender-blind casting for the play so that four of the seven cast members of what would be an all-male cast are played by women. Her goal may simply have been to give the play more diversity, but it does underline one of the play’s central messages: “The game cares for no one. Before the cards, everyone is equal.”

Jun has assembled an excellent cast headed by Tyrone Savage as Ikharev. With his Ronald Coleman moustache, Savage looks like a 1930s matinee idol and his suavity and self-assurance lead us to believe he is the one who will be in full command of the situation throughout the play. Savage plays the role with such panache, that we forget that our apparent leading man is still fatally guilty of pride and greed.

His main opponent is the Uteshitelny of Jean Yoon, best known as Umma on Kim’s Convenience. We know that her character is every bit as wily, if not wilier, than Ikharev, but unlike his air of affability, Yoon’s Uteshitelny never swerves from an attitude of the utmost seriousness and concern. Yet, competing with this attitude, Yoon gives the character an abundance of energy that suggests his actions are motivated by much more than camaraderie.

Uteshitelny’s companions Shvonev and Krugel are introduced as a pair and Gogol finds humour in having the two answer questions simultaneously as if they were one person. As Shvonev, Alana Hibbert displays the easy, devil-may-care attitude that is most similar to Ikharev’s, while Rachel VanDuzer portrays Krugel as a light-hearted young fellow who seems to be modelling himself after Shvonev. A running joke is that everyone assumes because of Krugel’s name that he is German and thus they address greetings and farewells to him in German. VanDuzer well portrays Krugel’s growing irritation with this treatment.

As the ancient wealthy man Glov, Nicky Guadagni nearly steals the show. Guadagni portrays Glov as decrepit but intractable, yet his puritanical attitude toward drink and gambling is undercut by his peculiarly strong attraction to Ikharev that he can barely conceal. 

Giovanni Spina plays both Ikharev’s dashing valet Gavryushka as well as Glov’s son Mikhail Alexandrovich and makes the two very distinct, Gavryushka being as worldly and restrained as Mikhail is naive and emotional. Izad Etemadi, best known for his drag persona of the flamboyant bearded Persian émigrée Leila, also plays two roles. As the inn-keeper Alexei he seems so bored with the outlandish goings-on in his hotel that even large tips don’t faze him. As Glov’s banker Zamukhryshkin he is hilarious even when not speaking, giving the most extensive eye-rolls I’ve ever seen as the gamblers explain the far-fetched plans they want the banker to carry out. 

Joe Pagnan has designed and lit a simple but very elegant set that depicts the main gaming room of the hotel as well as Ikharev’s own room just off to one side. By placing the rooms at an angle, with only two walls needed for the gaming room and a corner missing from Ikharev’s room, he allows us to see well into both and for Ikharev to address us even when he is in his private room. Michelle Bohn has designed the fine costumes that set the action in the 1920s and also well express the wearer’s character – a gold-vest for the flashy Ikharev and a long, shabby coat for the miserly Glov.

If you have any opportunity as all to visit Barrie, don’t miss this play. Drama existed in Russia well before Chekhov and seeing The Gamblers will demonstrate that Chekhov’s ironic view of life was already well established on the stage 38 years before he wrote Platonov, his first play. The plot twists in The Gamblers are a pleasure in themselves but when carried off with such élan by such a fine troupe of actors, it’s a joy. You’ll marvel that such a clever play as this is not better known, but you’ll also be grateful that a company like Talk Is Free Theatre is daring enough to bring it to life. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photo: (from top) Izad Etemadi as Alexei, Tyrone Savage as Ikharev and Giovanni Spina as Gavryushka; Izad Etemadi as Zamukhryshkin, Jean Yoon as Uteshitelny and Tyrone Savage as Ikharev; Tyrone Savage as Ikharev Jean Yoon as Uteshitelny, Rachel VanDuzer as Krugel and Alana Hibbert as Shvonev. © 2019 Scott Cooper.

For tickets, visit www.tift.ca.