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BWW Review: VANITY FAIR at the Performing Arts Theater, UCSB

BWW Review: VANITY FAIR at the Performing Arts Theater, UCSB
Photo credit: Fritz Olenberger
BWW Review: VANITY FAIR at the Performing Arts Theater, UCSB
Sierra Hastings as Becky Sharp and Cooper von Brühns as Manager/Miss Matilda Crawley/Lord Steyne. Photo credit: Fritz Olenberger.

'Vanity of Vanities!'

Santa Barbara theater-goers have had the opportunity to see two plays by Kate Hamill produced this fall. Westmont recently produced Hamill's adaptation of Jane Austen's novel, Pride and Prejudice. Now UCSB gifts us with Vanity Fair, based on William Makepeace Thackeray's 1848 novel. Having seen how "with-it" Pride and Prejudice's sensibilities were, I anticipated Vanity Fair's modern twists on its classic text. The depth of Vanity Fair was an unexpected delight.

The stage inside the cozy Performing Arts Theater is crowned by a tilted roof truss with exposed beams. The costumes and set are presented in the Empire style of the early 19th century. The tilt of the roof suggests an imperfect shelter: these characters can find protection, but their defense is never secure.

The characters are introduced to us on stage moving like puppets. This heightened sense of theatricality pervades the concept of the production. As directed by Thomas Whitaker, the heaviness of the story is lightened by bawdy interludes. Many members of the cast play multiple roles, sometimes in drag. The character of the Manager, played by Cooper von Brühns, who moves like a cat stalking his prey, leads us through Vanity Fair. He and the entire cast were so assured in their characters and so ready with their dialogue that I found myself becoming completely immersed in the illusion of the world and lost in its story.

Protagonists Becky Sharp (played with precision by Sierra Hastings) and Amelia Sedley (Tadja Enos, recently on stage in the title role of Hamlet) walk through life on shifting ground; they whirl along Fortune's wheel as they try in vain to shape their destinies. Becky uses her cunning to survive in a hostile world that seeks to exploit her at every turn. Sierra Hastings ably telegraphs Becky's wiles and sensitivity. Becky's credulous and high-born friend, Amelia Sedley, would seem to have her fortunes laid out for her, but she ends up walking an equally arduous path as her friend. Fortune's wheel turns for them and then it turns back again. Thackeray, a moralist, wrote the pair of women as foils to one another, designing their diverging strategies for the moral instruction of his readership. Hamill is no moralist. Watching the play, one never judges Becky or Amelia for their actions, however morally questionable or myopic they may be.

The play asks the audience: "Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?" I would not know. I do know I left the theater with the satisfaction of seeing a powerful story finely done.

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