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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
VANITY FAIR
at Pearl Theater

CLASSIC REINVENTION
By MATT WINDMAN

  (L to R) Brad Herberlee, Joey Parsons, Kate Hamill and Tom O'Keefe/ Ph: Russ Rowland

Aspiring theater artists (especially actors who are comfortable with dabbling in playwriting and directing) ought to take note of the success achieved by the young founders and ensemble members of Fiasco Theater and Bedlam with their small, no-frills, accessible and exciting productions of Shakespeare and other classic works. Rather than fruitlessly audition for well-known theatrical institutions, these performers put on their own shows, received acclaim from critics and got those companies to come to them.

I first caught Fiasco’s production of Cymbeline at a walkup commercial space in Lower Manhattan in 2009. Four years later, I saw Bedlam’s four-actor Saint Joan at the same place. Both companies have since graduated from Off-Off-Broadway obscurity to mainstream Off-Broadway, with hits like Fiasco’s Into the Woods (which is now on a national tour) and Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility (which is now being performed by regional theaters following multiple hit Off-Broadway runs).

At the moment, Bedlam is producing a solo show (Cry Havoc!) that combines memories of military service with Shakespeare, but two of the company’s leading players, Kate Hamill (who adapted Sense & Sensibility and co-starred in it) and director Eric Tucker, have separately moved forward with a lively adaptation of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, another classic work of 19th-century English literature, which is being produced by the Pearl Theatre Company as part of its current Off-Broadway season. Although it is not technically a Bedlam production, it retains the company’s freewheeling aesthetic.

The novel, a 700-page social satire set against the backdrop of 19th-century Europe and the Napoleonic Wars, has numerous plot twists and covers a vast amount of time and locations. Its protagonist, the social-climbing and quick-thinking Becky Sharp, goes from mistreated charity ward to governess to army wife to high-spending socialite to destitute resident of a gamblers den. The many supporting characters include the virtuous Amelia (Becky’s best friend), bad boy George Osbourne (Amelia’s husband), simple-minded Rawdon Crawley (Becky’s husband) and rich spinster Miss Matilda Crawley (who warms up to Becky and then spurns her). It has been filmed multiple times, including as a 1998 BBC miniseries and a big-budget 2004 Hollywood version with Reese Witherspoon as Becky.

As you would expect from Bedlam, this is not a straightforward, by-the-book adaptation. It is led by a theatrical manager (Zachary Fine), not unlike the chairman in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, who narrates, observes the action from the comfort of an onstage armchair as if it were Masterpiece Theater, chats with the audience, criticizes the characters, makes random declarations (“There are no morals!”…”We’ve got great stuff ahead!”) and even takes on a supporting few roles himself (including Miss Crawley). He is joined by six other actors, including Hamill and Joey Parsons (as Becky and Amelia respectively) and four other men who take on numerous roles.

Given Thackeray’s suggestion that the novel is the equivalent of a puppet show, a meta-theatrical framing device is not out of place. However, Tucker and Hamill go beyond just having an onstage narrator. In keeping with the strong authorial voice of the novel, the actors occasionally break into monologues where they address and try to defend their characters’ actions. A theatrical flair runs throughout the production, ranging from picking up random props and pieces of clothing in order to switch characters to breaking out into dance choreography to pop hits (“Thriller,” “Single Ladies”).

The production does not achieve the effortless flow of Sense & Sensibility (which literally glided on skates), and its excesses often bog down the storyline instead of enhancing it. That being said, its antihero female protagonist remains a fascinating figure, and the whimsical creativity is more often than not enjoyable. Whereas Witherspoon tried to soften the title character, Hamill’s Becky is brutally direct, unapologetic and resilient. At one point, she is deemed a “nasty woman,” no doubt intended to bring up Donald Trump’s use of the phrase to describe Hillary Clinton.

Next up for Hamill is more Jane Austen. She will adapt and star in Pride and Prejudice, which will play the Hudson Shakespeare Festival and then Off-Broadway via Primary Stages. Count me in.

 


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