Honey, I shrunk Thackeray’s novel: A condensed Vanity Fair at the Pearl

12-Pearl_Vanity Fair(c)Russ Rowland(w)

Doing the social climb: from left, Debargo Sanyal, Tom O’Keefe, Ryan Quinn, Zachary Fine, Kate Hamill, Joey Parsons, and Brad Heberlee in the Pearl’s Vanity Fair. (Photo by Russ Rowland)

Rebecca Sharp—who is not quite the central character in Thackeray’s 1848 novel, Vanity Fair, but who would like to be—resembles a reality-TV performer. By chance of birth, she occupies an ordinary station in life; what’s worse, or perhaps better, given their own dubious careers, her parents have died, leaving her—as we’re often reminded in the novel—alone in the world, forced to fend for herself. For her, as for any number of present-day persons, there’s no reason why anyone should pay attention to her, give her any leeway, give her anything at all. And so, when any chance of advancement presents itself, she feels she must take it, apply whatever skills she has (but it happens that she has many) in order to bring herself up. She seizes opportunities; she maneuvers and manipulates, not always to serve herself alone, but always to her advantage; she’s developing her brand and pays no mind to bad PR. Becky Sharp would be a sensation on social media.

Could Thackeray’s novel be reinterpreted in this way? Could you recast the story, as Clueless and Cruel Intentions and others did with their sources, and call it Keeping Up with Miss Sharp, or—recalling the other central figure, Amelia Sedley, with whom Becky must share attention—Keeping Up with Becky and Emmy? Maybe this wouldn’t fly. I can’t help wondering whether some kind of reboot would work, though, because the creators of the stage adaptation currently running at the Pearl Theatre—Kate Hamill, who wrote the script and who plays Becky, and Eric Tucker, who directed—have given it to us straight, and while they’ve matched Thackeray’s storytelling cleverness with inventive tactics of their own, there are few surprises here. Great quantities of Thackeray’s overstuffed sofa of a novel have been trimmed away, leaving a précis that, at two hours and 45 minutes, manages to feel still rather long but also regrettably condensed. It’s like listening to the two-piano reduction of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (in the absence of the ingenious use Paul Taylor made of it): something essential remains, but all sorts of color and texture are gone.

The essence that remains is still considerable, but it’s best related in outline to avoid spoilers. Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley, her only friend, complete finishing school and spend some time together at the Sedleys’ house in London. Becky nearly snags a husband, takes up her post as governess to the Crawleys in the countryside, makes herself useful to a wealthy relation. Marriages occur. Napoleon Bonaparte escapes from Elba, and the women of the story accompany the military men to Belgium, where Boney meets his you-know-what. Death and infidelity occur. Social position is lost and gained. Amelia, our sweet and simple heroine, suffers for a bad decision, while Becky, clever and calculating and callous and quite possibly brilliant, achieves notoriety and prospers from it. Both of them, like everyone else in the tale, are viewed from the dual perspective of satire and sentiment; we laugh at them or shake our heads over them, we don’t entirely like them, but we come to care about them, about some of them anyway, and especially about Becky and Emmy.

As I said, the Pearl production matches Thackeray’s display of distancing and ironizing novelistic techniques in some ways. Both employ a framing device: the conceit, put before us at the Pearl by an impresario-like figure, of a tale being enacted for us. Five of the seven performers take multiple parts; only Hamill, as Becky, and Joey Parsons, as Emmy, do not. The casting resembles the British Empire as one might see it reflected in London of the period, largely white but showing other skin tones as well. Tucker’s staging includes cross-dressing, moments of dance and semi-ritualized movement, a flatulence bit (which becomes funny because it keeps coming back), and much rearranging of the furniture, some of which is on casters.

Hamill and Tucker’s version of Vanity Fair is lively and colorful and a marvel of condensation, but perhaps too much of a miniature for its own good. It fits our hurried lifestyle, in which we often—for the sake of gleaning a little about a lot of things—read a review instead of seeing the movie, or see a movie instead of reading the book. The character of Becky Sharp is one of Thackeray’s signal achievements in his novel, and you’ll come away from the stage version with a notion of who she is. Her outlines may begin to fade and blur after a few days, as may those of the rest of the story, but you can always turn to the book.

The production runs through May 14. Information is available here.

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