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As It Scrutinizes Our Morals, 'Vanity Fair' Gets Overstuffed

Josephine Moshiri Elwood, Debra Wise, and Malikah McHerrin-Cobb in "Vanity Fair" at Central Square Theater. (Courtsey Nile Scott Studios)
Josephine Moshiri Elwood, Debra Wise, and Malikah McHerrin-Cobb in "Vanity Fair" at Central Square Theater. (Courtsey Nile Scott Studios)

Becky Sharp will stop at nothing to get what she wants in Kate Hamill’s retelling of “Vanity Fair,” the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. “Come join my revolution!... Can’t we just have a little fun?” she persuades her virtuous best friend, Amelia Sedley. But the world is unfair and judgmental, so getting what they want proves frustrating and seemingly impossible.

“Vanity Fair,” now running at Central Square Theater, and presented by Underground Railway Theater, curates a space where morals are uninvited, and desire, whether it be for honor, redemption, romance, or money, is the driving force. Director David R. Gammons leans into the highly extravagant and over-exaggerated nature of English farce and dirties it up a bit. It’s full of naughty surprises and utter foolishness.

The production puts Thackeray’s satire of 19th-century British society into a funhouse of sorts, theatricalizing human desire and a constant cycle of longing. Gammons’ overall concept is purposefully gluttonous and over-indulgent to seemingly represent our obsession with worldly possessions and attachment to superficiality. However, this overstuffed and overstimulating design concept, although very exciting to look at, overshadows the meat and message of the play. The parallels between Becky and Amelia and Hamill’s implicit feminist throughline struggled to shine through the grandiosity.

Kate Hamill is known for taking classic novels and adapting them to center the women through a feminist lens. She challenges the way the female characters have originally been portrayed and retold over time. You may have caught her adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility” at the American Repertory Theatre a few years ago. In “Vanity Fair,” she teases out the stories of Amelia and Becky, one from privilege and the other from the lowest of classes, fighting for what they want in a society that relentlessly punishes them for having any ambitions at all. A challenge that’s still so relevant for women today — we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

As proven in Hamill’s body of work, theatricality and absurdity are her best friends. And as both director and set designer, Gammons certainly did not shy away from either. The production is wacky, wild, and a little raunchy. You can expect a fair share of phallic humor. The set is a visual feast of every inanimate object you could imagine from a television to a sink, lamps and jewelry, shabby paintings of dogs, umbrellas, beach toys, badminton rackets, you name it.

Stewart Evan Smith, Josephine Moshiri Elwood, Debra Wise, Paul Melendy, and Evan Turissini in "Vanity Fair" at Central Square Theater. (Courtesy Nile Scott Studios)
Stewart Evan Smith, Josephine Moshiri Elwood, Debra Wise, Paul Melendy, and Evan Turissini in "Vanity Fair" at Central Square Theater. (Courtesy Nile Scott Studios)

And it’s all stuffed into the nooks and crannies of seven dressing rooms situated in a line across the stage. We can see straight through the walls into each room equipped with costumes, makeup, and a vanity for each actor. There’s no privacy for these actors who play multiple roles as we see them change and freshen up in between scenes. It suggests a voyeuristic quality-- after all, the manager warns us with his first line: “there are no morals here.”

Jeff Adleberg’s lighting design consists almost entirely of eclectic light fixtures decorated amongst the chaos. The way he plays with individual light fixture’s function in relation to the action at hand is one of the more impressive aspects of the overall visual world.

Hamill’s quick-witted writing and the farcical world created around it demand hyper-specific performance. With farce and slapstick, timing is everything. It falters if there is a lack of crisp physicality and comedic precision. Although the members of the ensemble supported one another quite admirably, their timing didn’t seem to gel and there was a lack of physical sharpness overall.

The group seemed to stumble and even hesitate when it came to executing classic slapstick like spit-takes, doors slamming in faces, silly bits with food, and absurd moments of violence. As an ensemble, their commitment and stamina were apparent, but had there been a closer attention to exactness in comedic detail, the humor would have landed more effectively and complemented the world they were trying to support more effortlessly. Perhaps a sense of ease will settle in as the run continues.

However, one stand-out was Paul Melendy who was fully tapped into the specific physicality that farce asks for. His comedic timing was razor-sharp as the over-the-top schoolmaster Miss Pinkerton. He transformed seamlessly into the soft-hearted William Dobbin, bringing a tender, grounded quality to the otherwise “immoral” and unforgiving circumstances. His character captured the bulk of my sympathy, and I was charmed by his sensitivity as he worked up the courage to confess his love to Amelia, played by Malikah McHerrin-Cobb.

Paul Melendy and Malikah McHerrin-Cobb in "Vanity Fair" at the Central Square Theater. (Courtesy Nile Scott Studios)
Paul Melendy and Malikah McHerrin-Cobb in "Vanity Fair" at the Central Square Theater. (Courtesy Nile Scott Studios)

With Amelia’s softness, it is easy for McHerrin-Cobb to get lost in the wackiness occasionally, but she seizes an opportunity to pop out and demand that we pay attention. Dropping her subdued demeanor, she looks straight at us and asks, “You think I’m a sheep? I’m just trying to do the right thing,” a moment that created a much needed, resonant pause. Josephine Moshiri Elwood unapologetically commits to Becky Sharp’s vulgarity, and she frankly doesn’t care whether anyone likes her or not. Elwood’s Becky puts Becky first before anyone else. She and David Keohane, as the womanizing Rawdon Crawley share an intriguing chemistry, blatantly using each other opportunistically and loving it.

Underground Railway Theater’s Artistic Director Debra Wise is our guide through the narrative as the Manager, with the original “Vanity Fair” novel in hand and marked up with post-its. She forms an attentive bond with the audience, gaining our trust. She even joins the story herself, transforming into the high-maintenance and flatulent (yes, you read that right) aunt Matilda Crawley. Stewart Evan Smith and Evan Turissini jump from character to character, shamelessly committing to the various untrustworthy, sleazy, callous, and even dangerous men that Becky and Amelia encounter on their respective journeys.

Although this ensemble was clearly enjoying every moment of this wild ride we’ve embarked on with them, I can’t help but feel that the actors became a bit lost in the troves of stuff and slapsticky theatricality. In theory, I understand Gammons’ impulse to physicalize our inherent never-ending desire, but I found myself searching through the piles of objects and frivolous material to find the deeper meaning in the interwoven tales of Becky and Amelia. Their resilient spirits and revelation of friendship and self-worth were muddled by an overdrawn conceptual idea.

The Central Square Theater's production of "Vanity Fair" continues through Feb. 23.

Rosalind Bevan Theater Writer
Rosalind Bevan writes about theater for The ARTery.


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