Vanity Fair

January 27, 2020

in Plays

Play (2017)
by Kate Hamill
from the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray

Directed by David R. Gammons
Underground Railway Theater
Central Square Theater
Central Square, Cambridge, MA
January 23 – February 23, 2020

With Josephine Moshiri Elwood (Becky Sharp), David Keohane (Rawdon Crawley, Mr. Sedley, General Tufto), Paul Melendy (William Dobbin, Miss Pinkerton, Rose Crawley), Malikah McHerrin-Cobb (Amelia Sedley), Stewart Evan Smith (George Osborne, Lesser Pitt, Lady Bareacres), Evan Turissini (Joss Sedley, Sir Pitt, Mr. Osborne, Miss Jemima), Debra Wise (Manaer, Matilda Crawley, Lord Steye)

Vanity Fair poster image

Image: Courtesy of Central Square Theater

A fun and pantomimish interpretation of the eighteenth century comedy of manners.

Becky Sharpe is a boarding school girl come from the lower ranks and Amelia Sedley (Malikah McHerrin-Cobb) is her school pal who comes from the upper classes. Becky is a manipulator and conniver and will do anything to rise up socially. Amelia is good-hearted and sometimes so well-intentioned that she undermines her own best interests. They eventually both find themselves in marriages that fare for better or worse, and somehow the two women cross paths at several crucial points, influencing one another’s lives and fates.

Thackeray is a master of social destiny novels. Barry Lyndon, similar in its tracing of the trials and errors of a desperately ambitious young person, focuses on a young man rather than, as in Vanity Fair, a young woman. But the stories are parallel in many ways and exhibit Thackeray’s analytical, moral, and satirical interests in the fates of those who try just a little too hard to get ahead.

Already a satire, Vanity Fair is a complicated enough small epic to make staging it seem an unlikely prospect. Nonetheless, playwright Kate Hamill has done a decent job of rendering the knotty ups and downs in the space of a few hours. With six actors and a fair amount of bunching up of roles, Hamill, and this enthusiastic and exuberant Underground Railway Theater production, have enabled the story to be told reasonably clearly.

This production is full of broad humor, and like British pantomimes, relies on that breadth to cast its comic net. In some places, the outward hilarity leads to some genuine laughs, but the spirit of levity is always close at hand.

There is one sequence that plays heavily off of old Matilda Crawley’s (Debra Wise) abundant intestinal gas and does so with a devoted repetition that calls to mind pantomime or vaudeville. Similarly, throughout the show, whenever the word “governess” is mentioned, the entire cast responds noisily in condemnation of the lower station of such a role. It’s particularly funny the first few times and then, again, it becomes more of a ritualized emblem of that pantomime-style gaggishness.

Comic acting is competent throughout, and, at the times when allowed, even some dramatic capacities get to shine through.

As Becky, Josephine Moshiri Elwood is sharp and to the point, tough and self-sufficient; her dealings with David Keohane as Rawdon Crawley are particularly vivid and funny, and his are equally so in return.

As Amelia, Malikah McHerrin-Cobb offers a sweetness and grace, and, as her latter-day counterpart William Dobbin, Paul Melendy has very warm and hilarious moments. When Dobbin returns halfway around the world from India to see Amelia and receives a muted response, Melendy gives a particularly uproarious turn; it drew lots of laughs.

Debra Wise oversees things as the gaseous Matilda Crawley and as the manipulative Lord Steyne, and she artfully lends convincingly opposed renderings to these roles.

Stewart Evan Smith amusingly fills in the roguish honors mainly as George Osborne, and Evan Turissini galavants as Joss Sedley and miscellaneous other colorful characters.

The ingenious set, designed by the multi-talented director David R. Gammons, stretched out lengthwise to the full extent of a wide audience setup, is wonderful and tantalizing. Each of the characters disappears into any of the many rooms along that expanse, continually making one gawk and wonder what goes on behind those partially-hidden walls. I did catch a peek of a movie playing on a TV in one of them – a particularly cute touch.

Lighting design by Jeff Adelberg is varied and interesting.

The show runs to almost three hours, but there is an intermission. Given that the famous Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1980 staging of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, also a majestically epic novel, was eight and a half hours long, this is not too bad.

Kate Hamill’s stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility had a stylish presentation by Bedlam at the American Repertory Theater in 2017. With a shorter book and a less elaborate plot to depict, that adaptation lent itself more to straight satire and less to broader slapstick humor.

All in all, this energetic production of Vanity Fair is an entertainingly pantomimish depiction of its devastating social observations, while offering some sweet, moral narrative turns that alchemize the manipulations in a satisfying way.

– BADMan (aka Charles Munitz)

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