Following in the success of her recent Sense and Sensibility, playwright Kate Hamill has made nineteenth century literature feel vitally fresh once again, this time in Vanity Fair, a lively adaptation of William Thackeray’s 1847 novel.
Reuniting Hamill with Sensibility director Eric Tucker, Vanity Fair tells the sprawling tale of two seemingly opposite female friends: the rule-defying Becky Sharp (played by Hamill) and well-mannered Amelia Sedley (Joey Parsons). Kicking off as the two leave school and enter adult life, Vanity Fair charts their societal ups and downs, putting the women at the mercy of the ruthless British class system and demonstrating the – often harshly-judged – decisions they must make to survive. As in Thackeray’s original novel, the tale is seen through the framing device of a fair, putting a literal spin on the show’s title. The show is overseen by the Manager (Zachary Fine), a knowing contemporary narrator who reminds the audience not to judge the women’s actions – even as he criticizes them himself – lest we forget that this centuries-old society isn’t all that far off from our own.
This carnival framework serves the show’s design (by Sandra Goldmark) well, surrounding the stage with atmospheric dotted lights (by Seth Reiser) and rich red hues that give a darkly atmospheric air to the oft-lighthearted proceedings. But the reliance on this framing device as a way to link the 19th century proceedings to our own 21st century lives often feels heavy-handed, and further efforts to insert interstitial modern-day songs, such as “Single Ladies” and “Thriller,” feels extraneous.
These modern-day parallels feel all the more unnecessary because Hamill’s streamlined adaptation of Thackeray’s wide-ranging plot so successfully comes alive on its own. Aided by Tucker’s vibrant, fun-spirited direction that infuses the centuries-old story with new life, Hamill’s play propels forward at a quick pace, drawing us in through its own virtues and asserting its relevance on its own terms. The nimble seven-person cast deftly navigates Tucker’s intricate staging and the sprawling story, transforming from character to character with ease and perfectly striking the balance between churlish fun – this is not a production that’s above a fart joke or serious Macarena sequence – and harsh cynicism. It’s this quick pace and lively energy that makes Thackeray’s 19th century ideas spring off the page and capture our attention – far more so than the straightforward reminders of its relevance to our own lives.
While the production often revels in fun and whimsy, though, it’s the strength of its female characters that truly brings it to life. As played by Hamill and Parsons, Becky and Amelia aren’t mere archetypes whose mistakes offer lessons to us all – they’re cunning, three-dimensional women whose complicated emotions add gravitas and nuance to the often silly proceedings. Though many of the production’s male characters are played up for comedic effect, this is a show that takes its women seriously, positioning them as ambitious and cunning enough to use whatever agency they have to get ahead. Hamill lets Becky and Amelia shine, giving both women monologues justifying their tough decisions and striking down their detractors. These are women, Hamill asserts, that can speak for themselves.
The show tries to emphasize the women’s modern relevance through the Manager – but in a “post-Hillary” world, connecting the dots between these harshly judged ambitious women and our own society isn’t hard to do. Amelia and Becky’s decisions may not always be popular, and often result in tragic consequences, but at least this is a show that celebrates that the decisions are theirs – and ours – to make.