There are two directors in Boston that I would wholeheartedly call fearless: One is Igor Golyak of Needham’s Arlekin Players, and the other is David R. Gammons, whose current mounting of Kate Hamill’s Vanity Fair runs at Central Square Theater through Feb 23. Gammons’ recent work includes Frankenstein at Central Square Theater, Edward II at Actors’ Shakespeare Project, and Hand to God at SpeakEasy Stage. With Gammons at the helm, you never know quite what you’re in for. But whatever it is, you know that it will be a full-throttle, meticulously designed, high-concept adventure.
That is very true of Vanity Fair, Kate Hamill’s rollicking and romping adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th-century novel. Hamill has made a career out of adapting stuffy, dusty novels for the stage: she’s already tackled Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Little Women, and she’s already announced upcoming adaptations of Dracula, Emma, The Scarlet Letter, and The Odyssey, which has been commissioned by Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater. Local audiences may remember Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s Pride and Prejudice, which ran this summer, or A.R.T.’s Sense and Sensibility, which had a successful run two years ago.
A frequent collaborator with Bedlam theater troupe and its artistic director, Eric Tucker, both Hamill and Bedlam seem to share a similar kind of aesthetic, one that squeezes a handful of actors into as many roles as possible and tells a classic story in an always chaotic, frequently difficult to understand way. Boston has had its fair share of Bedlam productions as well: Pygmalion, Hamlet, Saint Joan, Sense and Sensibility, and The Crucible have all played on local stages recently.
It’s true that Vanity Fair—which is being presented by the Underground Railway Theater—is not a Bedlam production, nor does it have anything to do with Eric Tucker, though he did direct the New York production two years ago. I point this out because Hamill’s writing style has a lot in common with Bedlam’s way of doing things, and if you’re like me and would rather get your face waxed than endure another Bedlam production (though The Crucible was extraordinary), then Vanity Fair might not be for you; it is exhausting in the same way that Bedlam’s productions are exhausting.
But Gammons’s extraordinary vision and first-rate cast make Vanity Fair into something better than it ought to be. I’d recommend a quick crash course on the plot before you go in—sometimes I found it incredibly difficult to follow. But each time I found myself growing tired of the business and the breakneck speed of the action, I’d get pulled back in by the charming cast and the sheer creativity of it all.
The heroine, Becky Sharp (an excellent Josephine Moshiri Elwood), is a low-born woman with sky-high ambition, and she’ll do whatever it takes to move up in society to avoid becoming a governess (yuck!). Things like rules and protocol do not deter her. If she wants something, she goes after it, and Gammons cheekily conveys this early on by having her sing a song to the tune of Ariana Grande’s badass ode to excess and getting what you want, “7 Rings.” (This isn’t the only such instance of modern music: Songs by the Who, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, and Queen also make an appearance.)
In contrast to Becky is her friend Amelia (Malikah McHerrin-Cobb), who is born of a higher class but doesn’t share Becky’s sociopathic tendencies or desire to rock the boat. What follows is a nearly three-hour-long, decades-spanning saga of… Well, just about everything. A Dickensian (Thackerayesque?) cast of characters are all brought vividly to life by only five actors—David Keohane, Paul Melendy, Stewart Evan Smith, Evan Turissini, and Debra Wise—all of whom slip exquisitely into and out of a dizzying array of roles. The ensemble work is astounding. Melendy, Turissini, and Wise are particularly impressive.
Gammons has also designed the set, which consists of seven individual dressing rooms, each with its own door, spanning the width of the stage. Some have vanities, one has a sink, another a crystal chandelier and a black-and-white television playing a silent film. We can see into each of these rooms, where the actors dress and wait for their next scene. It’s a fascinating, metatheatrical concept, one that will keep your attention even when the play won’t. Ciara McAloon deserves major credit for coordinating all of the props, and Leslie Held’s costumes are also a treat. I especially love Jeff Adleberg’s lighting, which lights much of the action from below, giving Vanity Fair the alluring haze of a vaudeville show. There’s all kinds of ways that magic is made here—in one instance, a busy street scene is conjured with nothing more than simple lighting, sound (by David Wilson), a puppet, and Monopoly money—and these touches imbue the production with a remarkable sense of creativity.
A journey into the mind of David Gammons is always a journey worth taking, even when the material isn’t as satisfying. Here, the pains are minor, thanks mostly to top-shelf vision and one of the most delicious ensemble casts of the year.
VANITY FAIR: AN (IM-)MORALITY PLAY. THROUGH 2.23 AT CENTRAL SQUARE THEATER, 450 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. CENTRALSQUARETHEATER.ORG