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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The Pearl Theater's home is ideally suited to Bedlam's mission of presenting their work in spaces that allow the audience to be right up close to the story being told. But even with an ideal space for Bedlam's style of classic adaptions and the Pearl's scenic designer Sandra Goldmark on board to support Erick Tucker's directorial vision, wrestling Thackeray's epic character and plot stuffed novel into a manageable stage work is a daunting undertaking. Even if she didn't succeed in streamlining it without losing the essential characters and thematic elements, Kate Hamill would deserve a big hand for tackling such a daunting enterprise.
Tolstoy's War and Peace, one of the two classic novels for which Vanity Fair is said to Be the progenitor is currently a Broadway musical hit musical entitled Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 . While adapter Dave Malloy limited himself to a 70-page excerpt, Ms. Hamill has taken on Thackeray's entire 10-year spanning narrative and the satiric asides to which the novel owes much of its durability. And she's streamlined it to fit the Bedlam style and retain its thematic impact and essential characters.
Since having the actors slip in and out of multiple roles is part of what makes Bedlam productions so special and enjoyable, even Zachary Fine, the delightful Stage Manager, is assigned two other important roles. However, while this makes Vanity Fair at the Pearl more fun than reading the Thackeray's Victorian style tome, this production will be richest for those who are familiar with the novel.
Until those unfamiliar with the book can extend and enrich their stage viewing by reading one of the many free or almost free digital versions available, here's a quick rundown of the scenario:
The story begins as Amelia Sedley, born to a respected and wealthy family, and Becky Sharp, orphaned daughter of an artist and a mother who performed on the Paris stage, leave a boarding school where Becky was a charity student to live out their lives in the social climbing, money hungry world of Vanity Fair. Amelia is a goody-good type who cares more about love and goodness than the values of Vanity Fair; Becky, is the clever, charming little adventuress whose every action is driven in pursuit of being accepted by that society.Adapter Kate Hamill and Pearl Theater regular Joey Parsons are the only cast members who play just one part. Hamill portray Becky. Parsons is Amelia, the friend Becky both envies and loves (shades of Scarlett and Melanie in Gone With the Wind).
Hamill nails the way Becky lives up to her surname, using her brains and charm to overcome her humble origins to achieve the respect and good life to which her friend Amelia is born. But being a financier's daughter is not like being an aristocrat and so also disaster prone.
Parsons doesn't immediately convey the less charismatic goodness of Amelia. This isn't helped by the fact that details about Amelia's years of impoverished widowhood and determination to remain true to her fallen hero are part of some of the adaptation's necessary trims. That said, Ms. Parsons is a good enough actress to quickly overcome these bumps to fully realize her role — especially in an audience-addressing soliloquy in which she admits that she may seem like a fool, and too soft and sappy.
In ratcheting up Becky Sharp's hold on her reputation as a villainess you can't help liking and admiring, the Hamill script downplays the outright cruelty by Rebecca towards her son. Instead she uses it to make Becky a worthy representative of a woman who's not so nice traits can be justified by the restraints on a woman living in early 19th Century England. Thus she makes her neglectful but doesn't show her actually disliking the never seen little Rawdon. She explains that neglect to her more fatherly husband as fitting behavior in the society of which she wants to be a part. ("Would you have me be a governess again? All real gentlewomen operate in a different sphere from their children; that is the way things are done").
The rapid-fire role changes are amusingly and well supported by Valerie Therese Bart's costumes (often just a headscarf or apron to indicate a character switch). While Goldmark's scenery, which includes a rotating curtain and a raised level playing area, and Seth Reiner's lighting make this a somewhat more elaborate production than Austen play at the Judson Gym. This is a welcome change, given the more complex source text with its many locations. But that's not to say that the Bedlam stylistic fillips aren't on frequent and amusing display — like the dinner scene during Becky's visit to the Sedleys where Becky comes on to the shy Jos by repeatedly dropping her napkin under the dining table which consists of a sheet held up by the Sedleys sitting at either end.
Tucker helps make the character and scene shifts seem effortless and easy to understand even by Vanity Fair newbies. The occasional freeze frames and choreographed musical interludes once again give this the Bedlam buzz and the high quality we've come to expect from the Pearl. At 2 hours and 45 minutes this is long by the current popularity of short one-acters, but it's hardly enough time to do justice to this doorstop-sized classic.
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Adapted by Kate Hamll from William Thackeray's novel
Directed by Eric Tucker
Cast: Joey Parsons (Amelia Sedley), Brad Heberlee (Jos Sedley, Sir Pitt Crawley, Mr. Osborne, Miss Jemima and others), Zachar Fine (Manager, Miss Matilda Crowley, Lord Steyne), Tom O'Keefe (Rawdon Crawley, Mr. Sedley, General Tufto and others), Ryan Quinn (William Dobbin, Miss Pinkerton, Rose Crawle and others), Debargo Sanyal (George Osborne, "Lesser" Pit Crawley, Mss Briggs, Lady Bareacres and others).
Sets: Sandra Goldmark
Lights: Seth Reiser
Original Music: Carme Deal Dramaturg: Kate Farrington
Stage Manager: Katharine Whitney
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Pearl Theater 555 West 42nd Street pearltheatre.org 212.563.9261
From 3/24/17; opening 4/02/17; closing 5/27/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommerat April 2nd press matinee
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