(A)MORAILTY PLAY: VANITY FAIR (The Pearl Theatre Co.)
If you missed playwright Kate Hamill’s and director Eric Tucker’s joyous SENSE & SENSIBILITY at Bedlam, you can atone – and deliriously – with their new collaboration VANITY FAIR at The Pearl Theatre. Ms. Hamill, among Off-Broadway’s most intelligent young playwrights (she’s certainly cornered the market for adaptations of 19thC Britlit) and Mr. Tucker, among its most inventive directors, team up again, distilling Thackeray’s novel to vivid, contemporary expression. Remarkably Thackeray’s words are seldom heard: Ms. Hamill reckons 70-80% of the dialogue is hers. Distinctively, too, Mr. Tucker’s direction results in anything but dry-as-dust Victorian parlor melodrama: witness a brief romp through Michael Jackson’s Thriller, furniture props on wheels, on-stage cross-dressing costume changes, (Not to worry, the setting is still Thackeray's period).
The grand, sweeping novel, first published in 19 serial installments in 1847-48, defies simple summary. The (in)famous Becky Sharp (played with pitch-perfect piss-and vinegar by Ms. Hamill herself), lowborn of no legacy portfolio, leaves finishing school with her best friend Amelia (a complicated role expertly navigated by Joey Parsons) from a family of financial means Becky spends her life clawing her way to the top: Amelia survives clinging to her bourgeois status. Uniquely, this VANITY FAIR is not just about Becky. Hamill perceives the ups and downs of the women’s fortunes as a dual story: Becky’s tale can’t be told without Amelia’s and vice versa - Madonna and the whore.
Hamill plumbs incisively the multiple themes in Thackeray’s satire: social class, ambition, hypocrisy, gender, ethics, unifying them with the central premise, “there are no morals here.” And if there are no morals, then by what standards could or should Becky’s and Amelia’s choices be criticized?
Cleverly, Hamill eschews the puppet show motif through which Thackeray frames his tale. Instead she creates a manager (think Our Town, or even the emcee in Cabaret), solidly played by Zachary Fine. Besides him, there are just four other actors in the show, all men, each excellent, who play about a dozen and half characters of all ages and genders. My favorite is Fine’s witty portrayal of the wealthy spinster aunt Matilda Crawley, who in the end doesn't buy Becky’s act.
The set, ingeniously designed by Sandra Goldmark, imagines a theater, a wide-open stage (a semi-struck set, a hodgepodge of theatre “parts” really, variously suggesting backstage, dressing rooms, even an electric marquee) that not only facilitates the fluid motion Tucker achieves with the players (this show moves, and how) but also highlights Hamill’s craftiness at making the printed page come to life. VANITY FAIR is an exemplar of making the literary theatrical. I’ll go even further and declare that VANITY FAIR is what theatre is all about, even if, at every turn, Hamill, Tucker and company are asking - so entertainingly, so disarmingly - “Who are YOU to judge?”