Hamill, URT breathe new life into ‘Vanity Fair’

Stewart Evan Smith, Josephine Moshiri Elwood, Debra Wise, Paul Melendy, and Evan Turissini (lying on ground). Photo: Nile Scott Studios.

CAMBRIDGE – Playwright Kate Hamill has been breathing new life into literary classics, adapting them for the stage while also creating a new sub-genre of work that has made those classics more accessible and vibrant than ever.

Hamill, one of the 10  most-produced playwrights in the country for the past three years, has worked her magic again with “Vanity Fair,” William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1847 serial that was turned into an 800-page novel, now onstage at the Central Square Theater under the auspices of the Underground Railway Theater.

Hamill’s makeovers of “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice’ were critically-acclaimed successes at the American Repertory Theatre and Actors Shakespeare Project, respectively, in 2017 and 2019.  While “Vanity Fair” has undergone many metamorphoses on stage and screen, Hamill has managed to make it over in her own image without sacrificing the integrity of the story and especially its central character, Becky Sharp, an orphan who does what she must to survive while asking “Don’t judge me.”

Hamill’s trademarks are her manic pace – like playing a 45 rpm record at 78 rpm — and the gender-bending casting that, aside from the central roles, has women playing men and vice versa, often to hilarious effect.

Paul Melendy and Malikah McHerrin-Cobb. Photo: Nile Scott Studios.

The storyline concerns the doings of three families – the Crawleys, the Sedleys and the Osbornes and their intertwined relationships with the two women at the heart of the piece.

Director David R. Gammons has made some adroit casting choices. starting with Josephine Moshiri Elwood as Sharp and Malikah McKerrin-Cobb as Amelia Sedley, two women who begin on the same parallel path after graduating from Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Girls. After leaving the school, they ride the roller coaster of life in very different fashions – Sharp as a manipulator and liar who follows the money, and Amelia as a sweet girl, the daughter of a wealthy stockbroker, who nonetheless fares no better than Becky.

Gammons is also someone who enjoys making mischief and having fun, and he and Hamill have injected low humor and slapstick into the piece.

Hamill comes at “Vanity Fair” in the shape of a Victorian era music hall performance performed by seven actors, all of whom perform multiple roles except for Elwood and McKerrin-Cobb.  

For the key role of The Manager — a combination emcee/narrator, facilitator and sideshow barker  — Gammons had to look no further than Debra Wise, Underground Railway’s artistic director, who handles the role with aplomb.

When push comes to shove, and someone is needed to play the part of the wealthy Matilda Crawley, the sarcastic dowager – the Dame Maggie Smith of her day —  who terrorizes her family, Wise as The Manager accepts the challenge. “Everyone must do their part,” she explains, and jumps in to play the part with hilarious results.

She’ll also score later as Lord Steyne, who becomes a patron of Becky and her handsome husband Rawdon (David Keohane), but that patronage comes at a steep price.

Stewart Evan Smith is the passionate soldier George Osborne, who marries Amelia very much against her father’s wishes, causing them both grief.

Keohane’s Rawdon Crawley is an honorable, handsome sort whose sole skill seems to be gambling. He marries Becky very much against his family’s wishes.

Paul Melendy’s acting chops may only be exceeded by his comedic talents, which rank up there with any actor currently performing in Greater Boston. “Three Stooges” slapstick humor ensues  when he is asked to attend to the gaseous Matilda Crawley, but he also shines  in the straight role of Dobbin, an accomplished soldier who longs for Amelie’s hand only to be  seen as nothing g more than a friend.

Evan Turissini’s quick-changes skills and acting talents are put to the test and he’s all over the lot as Joss Sedley, a wealthy but uncouth sort who will eventually take up with a fallen Becky, the brutish Sir Pitt Crawley, whom Becky crosses, and Mr. Osborne, George Osborne’s father, a self-made businessman intent on pushing his son upward socially and who disowns him when he marries Amelia.

Gammons’ set spans the length of the theater and includes seven separate dressing rooms that allow the music hall performers to undergo a myriad of costume changes.

Yes, “Vanity Fair” does check in at two hours, 45 minutes, which includes s 15-minute intermission, but Gammons’ direction is so perfectly in tune with Hamill’s unique vibe you won’t feel it.

Gammons’ set provides a solid foundation for the production values that also include Leslie Held’s period-perfect costumes, including gowns for the ladies, and military pomp and circumstance for the soldiers.  Jeff Adelberg’s evocative lighting and David Wilson’s sound design are in concert with the music hall extravaganza that Hamill and Gammons have created.

 “Don’t be too bad or too good,” Becky Sharp tells Amelia at one point. “Either way, society will punish you.”

Both find that out the hard way. “Vanity Fair” is often exhilarating, never dull and Hamill treats her heroine – from the Thackeray book subtitled “a novel without a hero” — with respect and genuine affection.

The Underground Railway Theater production of “Vanity Fair.” Written by Kate Hamill from the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. Directed by David R. Gammons. Set design by David R. Gammons.  Lighting by Jeff Adelberg. Sound design by David Wilson. Costume design by Leslie Held. At the Central Square Theater through Feb. 23. Centrasquaretheater.org.

Josephine Moshiri Elwood, Debra Wise, and Malikah McHerrin-Cobb. Photo: Nile Scott Studios.