Now with Bonus Toilet Goblin: “Vanity Fair”

Presented by Underground Railway Theater
By Kate Hamill
From the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray
Directed by David R. Gammons
Fight coordination by Victor Ventricelli
Dialect coaching by Erika Bailey
Dramaturgy by Hilary Rappaprt

January 23 – February 23, 2020
Central Square Theater 
450 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139
Central Square Theater on Facebook

Critique by Kitty Drexel

Cambridge, MA — William Makepeace* Thackeray’s Vanity Fair postdates Voltaire’s Candide by almost 100 years. Kate Hamill’s Vanity Fair now at Central Square Theater compares strongly to the famed Bernstein operetta. One could expect the human race to have evolved to squabble over different intersocial problems after nearly a century. One would be wrong.

Hamill’s Vanity Fair follows the novel. It does not resemble the 2004 movie with Reese Witherspoon. Becky Sharp (Josephine Moshiri Elwood) and Amelia Sedley (Malikah McHerrin-Cobb) are two friends graduating from Mrs. Pinkerton’s finishing school to make their ways in life. Becky, a working-class mischiefmaker, is to be a governess for Sir Pitt Crawley (Evan Turissini). Amelia’s father is wealthy (David Keohane). Both must marry well in order to elevate their circumstances. It all seems simple enough. The universe/Thackery has other plans. The cast also includes Paul Melendy, Stewart Evan Smith, and Debra Wise as the Manager.

Vanity Fair examines the associated hypocrisy of wealth, status and gender. Women could grow up to be one of two things: a madonna or a whore. God determined a woman’s outcome in the womb. There was nothing she could do to change it. Hamill’s Vanity Fair rigorously straddles this dichotomy like a confused bull does a placid cowboy. Victorian England expected women to be utterly perfect in their womanhood. Being either too maidenly or too… liberal in personality would result in social punishment such as banishment or spinsterhood.

Hamill parodies Thackeray’s satire with camp: outrageous costumes, reversed gender casting, and multitudes of obscure props. This production is a live Punch and Judy show. It gives off English panto vibes but is decidedly not for children. The characters keep beating at each other without rhyme or reason until they get tired and the curtain lowers. Excuses are made up but the abuse is real. It’s a lot like life, really.

This production doesn’t take itself seriously but it’s clear that the cast and crew do. The set is longer than it is wide. A walkway with a short width runs parallel to the audience. Doors line the walkway and open into seven unfinished dressing rooms. Props and costumes are draped across the set’s plywood skeleton.

Vanity Fair’s set is a busy space, and an incautious person could seriously injure himself in the name of art. That none of the actors do while manipulating furniture, hand props and/or drapey costumes is a blessing and a triumph. None of the actors gave us reason to worry about their safety. It was only after the performance that I considered the potential dangers. I hope the performers were offered compensation commensurate with the experience just in case. At least the stage wasn’t raked.

This is a true ensemble piece. With the exception of leads Elwood and McHerrin-Cobb, each actor is responsible for playing several animated characters. These range from docile puppets to what my companion lovingly referred to as the “toilet goblin,” a character played by Paul Melendy. In flight goggles and white scarf, Melendy lent himself amiably to the sound effects for one Matilda Crawley (Wise) caught in the throes of disentary.  Whether offering a scatological assist or playing an unfortunately worthless romantic interest (Smith and Keohane), each actor brought their  A-game to the production.

Wise, Elwood and McHerrin-Cobb were the stars of the evening. They took daring risks in their parts by both defying and embodying stereotypes. They were superb and I look forward to seeing more of them on the stage.

The critic’s own photo. Check out that limited walking space.

URT’s Vanity Fair is a lot of fun: at nearly three hours, there is a lot of it and it is also fun. My date and I laughed throughout the entire performance but we were more than ready to go home at the end (because we are old now). It could be suitable for some children as the violence and the sex is tame. The social commentary is rapid. It may escape some kids, conservative thinkers and anyone who can’t sit still for long periods.

*Meakepace? More like MakeUnrest, amirite? *Self five*

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