Thursday, June 1, 2017

Theater Review: Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair,’ From The Pearl Theatre Co.

Like its crafty female protagonist, Becky Sharp, Vanity Fairthe Pearl Theatre Co. production that closed this past weekend—was nothing if not ambitious. In adapting the 1848 “novel without a hero” by William Makepeace Thackeray, actress/playwright Kate Hamill boiled down a sprawling masterpiece covering 30 years to approximately 20 named characters, embodied by seven actors. It may, in fact, have moved even faster than social-climbing Becky; events and characters were compressed, telegraphed even, into somewhat less than 2½ hours. A nuance or two might have gotten lost along the way, but really, who cares?

“Who are you to judge?” Becky demanded accusingly of the audience. Who, indeed? The odds against survival in early 19th century England are stacked against Becky, the daughter of a Frenchwoman who, scandalously, appeared on the stage. A governess job might serve the likes of Jane Eyre, but why stop there when you can aim so much higher?

In a sense, Becky can be seen as a Regency England precursor of Scarlett O’Hara, another conniver who uses her intelligence and feminine wiles in a society upended by a tumultuous war (in the case of Becky, the Napoleonic wars that end with the bloodbath at Waterloo). At the same time, one has to be a bit careful about enlisting Thackeray as a proto-feminist, as he gave precious little assistance to Charlotte Bronte when she asked his help as she and sisters Emily and Anne tried to get a hearing for their novels in the patriarchal publishing industry of their time.

But for the Pearl troupe’s feminist angle, that’s their story, and they were sticking to it. I thought that viewers might be more vexed by the breathless, even breakneck pace dictated by director Eric Tucker. Just as Becky careens from one (mis)adventure to another, so do the tables, chairs, and other furniture that serves as the play’s locales. The actors sprinted around, too, changing accents, costumes, wigs, even their sex as most of them assumed multiple roles. It was a challenge to keep it all straight in the play’s running time. 

In the performance I attended late in the show’s run, the understudy Kaileela Hobby filled in for Hamill, who originated the role of Becky. It would have been interesting to see how Hobby physically embodied a Becky she had created on paper, but Ms. Hobby was a more than capable substitute.

The other cast member with a single role was Joey Parsons as Becky’s schoolgirl friend Amelia—a thankless part due to the character’s almost willful naivete.  Parsons did all that she could to keep her from dissolving in a simpering puddle.

Also of note in this production: Debargo Sanyal, who gave Amelia’s husband, the doomed rakish soldier George Osborne, an appropriate Donald Trump-ish pout; Brad Heberlee, who made Amelia’s brother, Jos Sedley, a hilarious mark for Becky; and Zachary Fine, equally good as the licentious Lord Steyne and the Stage Manager, a winking ringmaster for these proceedings.

Last fall, the Pearl Theatre mounted a fine revival of Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 comedy-drama A Taste of Honey (see my review in this prior post), which, though a century removed from Vanity Fair, also spotlights a young woman struggling to rise above circumstance and class. The two plays could not seem more germane to our own time of limited horizons and national upheaval. One awaits eagerly what this longtime Off-Broadway troupe will come up with this fall.

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