Review by Ann Firestone Ungar
Long, long, long ago, long before Wheel of Fortune was a TV show, the wheel to which every mortal was subject was a symbolic construct: a wheel whose spokes were humans from all walks of life: the king, the beggar, the peddler, the wife, the priest, the soldier, the farmer. And as the wheel would spin, so went the fortunes of the people: up, descending, at the bottom of life, perhaps rising once again; such was the capricious nature of Fate. And in that world, which was medieval, there was a place, conceived by the writer John Bunyan, called Vanity Fair. There, pilgrims would stop and perhaps remain in a never-ending fair of sinful attachment to worldly things. It was a place where, as Kate Hamill’s play Vanity Fair describes it, folks ask themselves “How do you get what you want?” and “What do you want?”
Each character answers the first in his or her own way, usually a complex of kindness and cruelty. The second question is answered by some with “love,” “glory,” “redemption” or “respect,” but by all, in unison, by “money.”
Adapted from an 1847 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, Ms. Hamill’s play gives us a vivid, panoramic satire of English men and women striving to rise through marriage or inheritance into that sphere of treasure and therefore imagined happiness. They find their ways thwarted by unfavorable ancestry, rejection in love, social traditions, greed, sexual lechery, the horrors of war, and even a mother who defied propriety and sang on the stage (horror!) thus dooming her offspring to public rejection. One character, however, stands steadily against fortune’s tide, and through the power of love, he endures and triumphs. But only one.
The production is imaginatively staged in a Brechtian manner, with a circus atmosphere created by walls of vanity light bulbs (the kind that frame mirrors in old dressing rooms). Scenes are acted realistically, and then are turned on their heads with the company dancing to disco, or doing the Macarena which dissolves into a waltz. At one point, a character is brushing her teeth and holding her cellphone as she watches the action below. The company changes costume often by adding a wig or a skirt. Sometimes the men play women. There are little songs, chaos compounded by a demonic mini-marimba, and scant furniture wheeling around frantically. This is not only always clever and fun; it serves the play, showing us how these strong, yet often fragile characters are so very much like ourselves. The theatrical devices stop us from feeling and ask us to look and consider.
Brecht would probably say, look and learn. But here, the playwright asks us, “What moral could be puzzled from a thousand little moments when you never see an end? The sale, the con, the dance, the show, the fight, the grief, the lust, the love – it never ceases, it never stops, it never can! We want what we want, and nothing can stop us! Welcome to Vanity Fair!”
Ms. Hamill, in addition to being a terrific adaptor of text for the stage, is also an actress of great strength and charm. She plays the conniving anti-heroine Becky Sharp: clever, charming when she needs to be, resourceful, and honest, in the sense that she speaks her mind, however nasty that might be. This is woman you don’t want to spend time with, except from your safe seat in an audience watching her being truly awful. Except when she’s suddenly good to her old friend by telling her the truth about misplaced love.
Contrasting Becky is a character named Amelia, so well played by Joey Parsons. I mention her here to give you a succinct window into the flavor of this production. At one point, her husband starts to pull colored cloth from Amelia’s mouth, and the cloth goes on and on, coming out in a long strand, a magic trick of great power because Amelia, unlike Becky, cannot speak truth. She is repressed and is only slowly learning of her own affliction, not yet a self-aware woman.
The entire acting company deserves high praise for creating engaging, often deeply humorous, compelling characters. Their names are listed below, but all rise far above a mere list.
The costumes bring us close to the Victorian era and are charming in their grace and humor.
This production by The Pearl Theatre Co. runs through May 27. I hope you’ll have an opportunity to see it.
VANITY FAIR – by Kate Hamill, adapted from the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray
WITH: Zachary Fine (Manager, Miss Matilda Crawley, Lord Steyne), Kate Hamill (Becky Sharp), Brad Heberlee (Jos Sedley, Sir Pitt Crawley, Mr. Osborne, Miss Jemima, and others), Tom O’Keefe (Rawdon Crawley, Mr. Sedley, General Tufto and others), Joey Parsons (Amelia Sedley), Ryan Quinn (William Dobbin, Miss Pinkerton, Rose Crawley and others), Debargo Sanyal (George Osborne, “Lesser” Pitt Crawley, Miss Briggs, Lady Bareacres and others)
Eric Tucker (Director), Sandra Goldmark (Scenic Design), Valérie Thérèse Bart (Costume Design), Seth Reiser (Lighting Design), Matthew Fischer (Sound Design), Carmel Dean (Original Music Composer), Gary Levinson (Director of Production), Kate Farrington (Production Dramaturg), Katharine Whitney (Production Stage Manager), Matthew Fischer (Sound Designer), Hal Brooks (Artistic Director), Jess Burkle (Managing Director)
Understudies: Kenny Fedorko, Lauriel Friedman, Kaileela Hobby, Morgan Hooper, Alex Nicholson, Benjamin Thompson
Presented by The Pearl Theatre Company, 555 West 42 Street, New York, NY; tickets may be purchased by visiting pearlgtheatre.org or calling 212-563-9261. Through May 27, 2017. Running time 2 hours with intermission.