What does a girl need to do in order to succeed in life and fulfill her desire for love and prosperity? In the middle of the 19th century, when William Thackeray wrote Vanity Fair, a lady had only two ways to get a lucky ticket; inheritance or marriage. In her new adaptation of the British novel, Kate Hamill revisits the dark times of feminism, and does it with much style and joy.
photo by Russ Rowland
Hamill effortlessly tames a 900-page behemoth of a novel and neatly packs it into a show just under three hours. Eric Tucker directs seven actors playing all the parts. The emerald jewelry box of a stage, designed by Sandra Goldmark, glows like a carnival with dozens of lamps on the walls. The heavy burgundy curtain on the oval hoop swings around to introduce chapters from the lives of two friends, Rebecca (Becky) Sharp (Kate Hamill) and Amelia (Emmy) Sedley (Joey Parsons).
As Becky and Emmy graduate from an all-girl school, we can only wonder how such an unlikely friendship between a penniless orphan and a high society lady could happen. Besides coming from different classes, the two girls couldn’t be more different in their temperaments. Rebecca, true to her last name, is poignant and persistent in her goal to make it into high society. Fueled by playfulness and a great deal of irony as portrayed by Hamill, she shamelessly flirts with every single wealthy man she encounters. Amelia, contrarily, is dreamy and obedient. Parsons wins your heart immediately with elegance and a charming smile.
A carousel of hopes and misfortunes spins around the two women, with five remaining men of the cast each playing multiple parts. Rapid changing of costumes, at times consisting only of a hat, a wig or a skirt, is reminiscent of a carnival and evokes the meta- theatre present in the Thackeray’s novel itself.
Although the play lost its framing of a puppet show, Hamill added a character of a Manager (Zachary Fine), dressed in a modern attire. The stage Manager addresses the audience directly mixing up his moral remarks with theater jokes, and occasionally shames Rebecca for being too indiscreet in her husband-hunt.
Fine plays the Manager with a hint of snobbery and melancholic tiredness, the same qualities he brings to two characters he plays in Miss Sharp’s story, old made Matilda Crawley and Lord Steyne. Fine is faithful to the estranged approach to the characters he plays and never fully takes off the hat of a storyteller. This reduces the vulgarity of a long frat sequence involving Matilda and makes Lord Steyne appear more evil.
Debargo Sanyal shows another example of a very stylized performance, although I found the amount that he grimaces excessive. There is an aftertaste of unkind mockery in the way Sanyal plays his parts, which the production managed to avoid otherwise. Though there are some playful jabs at 19th century romanticism. For instance, every time somebody is about to faint, some modern pop tune kicks in and the entire company dances for some time. And they fainted often in the 19th century!
Even if you think that the Macarena set to a waltz is not your cup of tea, there are plenty more elegant ways to revive the classics that the director, Eric Tucker, explores. Dynamic staging, playing with rhythm, scenes with double dialogue, the Vanity Fair never stops its breathtaking spinning. Come for a ride while you still have a chance.
Vanity Fair runs at The Pearl Theatre, 555 West 42nd Street, through May 27. The running time is 2 hours 45 minutes with one intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:00pm; Wednesdays at 2:00pm; Thursdays at 7:00pm; Fridays at 8:00pm; Saturdays at 2:00pm and 8:00pm; and Sundays at 2:00pm and 7:00pm. Tickets are $59-$79, and are available at pearltheatre.org or by calling 212-563-9261.
Vanity Fair is written by Kate Hamill, and adapted from the novel by William Thackeray of the same name. Directed by Eric Tucker. Set Design is by Sandra Goldmark. Lighting Design is by Seth Reiser. Sound Design is by Matthew Fischer. Costume Design is by Valérie Thérèse Bart. Katherine Whitney is the Production Stage Manager.
The cast is Kate Hamill, Joey Parsons, Brad Heberlee, Zachary Fine, Tom O’Keefe, Ryan Quinn, and Debargo Sanyal.