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Theatre in Review: Vanity Fair (Pearl Theatre Company)

Kate Hamill, Tom O'Keefe. Photo: Russ Rowland

It may be that Kate Hamill and Eric Tucker have finally met their dream author in William Makepeace Thackeray. As you may recall, Hamill adapted Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, under Tucker's direction, for the troupe Bedlam, a production that, to my mind, lacked both of the qualities mentioned in the title, thanks to Tucker's fondness for aren't-we-clever bits of staging business, most of which proved too broad by half. Thackeray is another matter; the novelist's gimlet-eyed satiric view of an English society riddled with snobs, social climbers, and con artists proves highly amenable to Hamill and Tucker's theatrical treatment.

Once again, Hamill has performed a highly efficient act of distillation, exposing the solid structure underlying Thackeray's sprawling satire. As in the novel, the story focuses on the rising and falling fortunes of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, who bond at school and find their lives forever linked. Amelia is well-off, well-bred, and affianced to George Osborne, the son of her father's best friend; having long had her life laid out for her, she is sweet, but both a little dim and rather entitled. Becky, the daughter of an impecunious artist and a French "stage girl" -- the latter detail striking horror in any nice person's heart -- is a schemer so brazen as to make Scarlett O'Hara blush. Destined for the life of a governess, she has big plans for herself, and woe betide anyone who gets in her way.

One rises, the other doesn't. Becky is packed off to a country house where, escaping the clutches of the lord of the manor, Sir Pitt Crawley, she gets herself attached as a companion to Matilda Crawley, the family's only really wealthy member. Soon, she is keeping company with Rawdon Crawley, Sir Pitt's soldier offspring and Matilda's putative heir -- that is, until he marries Becky. Cut off from the Crawley fortune, Becky and Rawdon live beyond their means, running a kind of gambling parlor out of their fashionable London townhouse, Becky further compromising herself by taking money and gifts from the rapacious, but well-connected, Lord Marquis de Steyne). Meanwhile, Amelia's father goes bankrupt, and George's offer of marriage is withdrawn. Goaded by his friend William Dobbin, himself in love with Amelia, George goes against his father's wishes and runs off with Amelia, but the alliance is a disaster, and, after his death in the war against Napoleon, Amelia, now a mother, sinks into a desperate state of poverty.

Aided by a nimble company of seven, most of whom play multiple roles, Hamill and Tucker roll out scene after scene right out of a satiric engraving in Punch. (The first glimpse of Sir Pitt's family, a prize tableau of idiots and neurasthenics, is particularly memorable, but there are many other examples, including the ghastly old maids who run Amelia and Becky's school.) The book's steady, unblinking gaze is preserved by the retention of the Manager, a Thackeray stand-in who acts as narrator; as played by Zachary Fine, he notes sardonically that everyone on stage, rich and poor, well-born and common, are merely engaged in the great game of getting ahead -- and who are we to judge?

Indeed, the picture on stage is hardly clear-cut: Becky may use virtually everyone else as a steppingstone -- sucking up to Matilda, marrying Rawdon for his presumed fortune, and struggling to keep the marquis at arm's length while accepting his baubles -- but Hamill does it all with a twinkle in her eye, and, in any case, we have seen the horrible treatment to which she has been subjected. (This is especially true in school, where she is dismissively classified as a "charity pupil.") Amelia is a virtuous woman of her time, which means she is a little chilly when it comes to matters of class -- she believes that the best Becky can hope for is a life of service -- and also a fool, remaining devoted to George's memory long after it is obvious that he was never worth it. Joey Parsons' performance makes vividly clear the costs of Amelia's downward journey, the utterly dire state of a genteelly poor widow in the midst of Victorian prosperity.

The other members of the company all shine in one or more roles: Fine is also effective as de Steyne, who charmingly, but ruthlessly, reels Becky into his grasp. ("Some are benefactors to artists," he murmurs. "Think of me as a benefactor to social adventurers.") Brad Heberlee provides an entire gallery of characters, including Jos, Amelia's muddled, self-involved brother; the crude Sir Pitt; and George's cruelly dismissive father. Tom O'Keefe is ideal as the handsome, none-too-bright Rawdon, appearing in one stylized sequence as a ventriloquist's dummy trained to utter Becky's witticisms. Ryan Quinn provides some much needed decency as Dobbin, who escapes to India in a futile attempt at forgetting Amelia. Debargo Sanyal is equally effective as both the self-regarding George and the "Lesser" Pitt Crawley, a pious second son with a Bible quote for every occasion.

I hasten to add that Tucker, who never can let well enough alone, does from time to time indulge himself, sometimes with Hamill's aid, to distressing effect. A scene in which Becky and Rawdon struggle to cope with Matilda's epic flatulence might work at about a quarter of the length. (This is one of those ideas that must have seemed hilarious in the rehearsal room.) And occasionally the company jettisons period style for brief musical interludes, including a gavotte to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," an incongruous rendition of "In Heaven There is No Beer," and a bit of the Adele ballad "Hello." Regrettable as they are, they are all quite brief and, frankly, half-hearted, as if even the director himself is starting to lose interest in such bits of shtick. It's quite possible that Thackeray's vision proved more resistant than Austen's to this sort of fooling around. In any case, if you look away, these moments are soon over.

The production benefits enormously from Sandra Goldmark's set design, a bottle-green Victorian interior that is eaten away around the edges, as if torn out of an old book. The set is outlined in electric bulbs that, when illuminated, create a tawdry carnival atmosphere, as if the characters had suddenly adjourned to Brighton Pier. If it is a little early for electricity, it is nevertheless a mordant illustration of Thackeray's social vision; Seth Reiser's lighting also reshapes the large playing space for scenes both large and small. The costumes, by Valérie Thérèse Bart, include some lovely period creations; the clothing also illustrates who is up and who is down on the social scale. (As the Manager, Fine is dressed rather like a hipster from Brooklyn, but I guess one can't have everything.) No sound design is credited, but Carmel Dean provided the effective original music.

And, in moments of excess, this production never lets us forget that Thackeray's satire routinely cuts too close for comfort. As the Manager, provocatively addressing the audience, says, "It is easy to sit in judgment. But the right path is often unclear to those still living in the Fair, when you consider the game's great question: How do you get what you want?" There is, in most of use, more of Becky Sharp than we would like to admit. -- David Barbour

(6 April 2017)

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