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February 2, 2006, The Toronto Sun

The Gambler comes out a winner


With the closing of Artword Theatre, there is a chance that artistic director Ronald Weihs and partner Judith Sandiford could just walk away from the performing arts.

But based on The Gambler -- the final show to grace the stage of the intimate performance space -- I wouldn't bet on it.

Adapted by Weihs from Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel of the same name and interwoven with the true story behind the novel, The Gambler opened on the Artword stage on Tuesday night, where it will run through Feb. 19.

And, frankly, it's the kind of show that should signal the start of an impressive career in theatre, not the end of one.

Clocking in at just over two hours, it is an ambitious tale that successfully interweaves a fictitious tale of gambling and obsession in 19th century Europe with the true story of a successful Russian author who must reclaim his life from the clutches of a shady publisher with a hastily written novel.

But given Weihs' strong script, under the deft and focussed direction of Molly Thom, both stories move at a strong dramatic clip with only minimal bleed between the two. And while Gillian Gallow's elegantly simple sets and costumes and Rebecca Picherack's lighting combine to strong effect, it is the story itself -- a harrowing descent into the hell of gambling addiction, redeemed by the power of work and love -- that carries the day.

David Ferry is cast as both Fyodor and Alexei, the author of The Gambler and its narrator respectively, while Claire Jenkins gives a simple and touching performance as Anna, the young stenographer hired by Fyodor's friends to allow him to dictate his novel rather than write it.

As for the novel itself, it is a story inhabited by a host of bizarre characters brought to life by a strong cast of universal excellence.

As a weak-willed, impoverished and arrogant aristocrat, Karl Pruner is a revelation in elegant understatement, while as the befuddled grandmother, Jennifer Phipps proves as deft at stealing scenes as ever. As both the calculating Polina and the flirtatious Blanche, Irene Poole scores a double triumph, while Brett Christopher scores a hat trick, juggling three roles with impressive dexterity.

All of which brings us back to Ferry, who tackles his dual roles with a ferocious energy and a not inconsiderable skill. In the process, however, he creates characters far too brash for the story -- a Fyodor not sufficiently broken by the life he's lived and an Alexei devoid of the nobility to which he not only aspires but with which others credit him as well.

It is, in reality, a small flaw in a large performance, but it is enough to take the edge off an otherwise fine evening of theatre.

The Gambler is, finally, a fitting tribute to a fine little theatre and the fine people who have made it work.

Artword will close to make way for a new condo development.





Sun Rating: 4 out of 5