Two allegories are made vivid in the Village Repertory Company’s new production of “Vanity Fair,” an adaptation by Kate Hamill of the 18th-century classic novel.
The first is that the Rota Fortunae, or Wheel of Fortune, is a random force that affects all. The goddess Fortuna is blind and stupid, and thus spins her wheel with no regard for what it might do. Some experience a windfall, others are stripped of everything.
So the big lesson of “Vanity Fair” is that fate is fickle, and self-motivation therefore is essential.
The other allegory is drawn from John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” (itself a big allegory of Christian redemption), in which the town of Vanity, and the perennial circus it hosts, represents the decadent craving for material things.
William Thackeray, author of the serial novel that gained widespread currency in 1847 and 1848 when it first appeared in the magazine Punch, believed that people were inherently deceitful and wicked, their motives often difficult to discern.
That conviction permeates his novel, informs Hamill’s play and ricochets throughout Village Rep’s production, which runs Nov. 30-Dec. 22 at the Woolfe Street Playhouse.
The show stars Marissa Rothfarb as the amoral, ambitious Becky Sharp, and Cherie Kaufman as Amelia Sedley, the respectable and privileged friend. The rest of the cast members, all male, each play multiple roles: Aaron Andrews is, mostly, the unreliable Manager/Narrator; Xan Rogers is Rawdon Crawley and others; Kyle Downs is Joseph Sedley (Amelia’s brother) and others; Ryan Hendricks plays Captain Dobbin and others; Gil Snowden is George Osborne, et. al.; and Derek Pickens is Sir Pitt Crawley and others.
Robbie Thomas, associate artistic director of Village Rep and director of the production, said Hamill has streamlined the novel’s complicated plot, maintaining focus on the anti-hero Becky. The subtitle of the book, when it first was published in full, was “A Novel Without a Hero,” Thomas pointed out. That’s because no one in Thackeray's book is without serious character flaws, especially Becky, whose single-minded focus on social climbing sometimes causes her to make decisions that are, well, unsavory.
“She’s an independent woman,” Thomas said. “You don’t always want to root for her. She makes very human mistakes. She relishes in them sometimes, she’s selfish sometimes. She knows what she wants.”
She engenders sympathy nevertheless, Thomas added.
“You can judge all you want, but you don’t know what you’d do in that situation until you are there.”
Thomas said his version of the story folds back the allegory by setting the action within an actual carnival.
“We are taking ‘fair’ at face value, so there are circus lights, carnival barkers, a ringmaster, acrobats. We’re trying to give you this carnival feel when you walk in,” he said.
Andrews’ role is manager of the troupe of players and narrator of the action. His character “is whimsical, omnipotent and drives the plot for his own amusement,” he said.
Andrews also plays Lady Crawley and Lord Styne. So learning the play required a little extra time.
“From a memorization standpoint, I had to get a month and half head start on it,” he said. “To be free to express the characters involved, I knew I would have to have the text in me pretty early on.”
It took time, but it wasn’t especially burdensome, thanks in part to his recent experience in a Threshold Repertory Theatre production of “Sense and Sensibility,” another classic novel adapted by playwright Kate Hamill that asks the actors to play multiple roles.
In “Vanity Fair,” the two female characters are constant and give the play focus, Andrews said. For this production, the approach is to keep things fluid and out in the open. Costume, prop and set changes are done before the audience. Movement, posture and gestures are adjusted instantaneously to signal the presence of a new character.
“There are a lot of moving parts and a lot of different people,” Andrews said.
All the while, the morally ambiguous narrator tells the story, perhaps inventing things as he goes to make a point.
“The narrator comments on moral choices, but it’s unclear whether he is in favor (of them) or opposed,” Andrews said.
The audience can reach its own conclusions.
Keely Enright, Village Rep’s producing artistic director, said the production is a South Carolina premiere and very funny. It is a good follow-up to the company’s unorthodox previous show, “Treasure Island,” which featured a female protagonist. Indeed, the whole season is built around a theme of female experience, she said.
The company will present the one-woman show “All About You” in January. It’s based on the memoir by Liz Butler Duren in which the author recounts her journey of discovery upon learning she was adopted.
Soon after, Village Rep will present Shakespeare’s “Othello,” directed by Evan Perry, partly because actor Douglas Scott Streater is back in town to play the lead role, and partly because the play has such a compelling female character in Desdemona, Enright said.
But Village Rep shows aren’t the only events at the Woolfe Street Playhouse, a venue with two performances spaces. To help pay the substantial rent and utility bills, Enright and her team throw open the doors to other organizations and outside performers. For five years now, Woolfe Street Playhouse has provided Spoleto Festival USA with a cool, alternative space in the Upper King Street area where it presents the Music in Time series, a theater production or two and special concerts. The Charleston Wine + Food Festival, Garden and Gun Festival, Southeastern Wildlife Exposition and YALLFest also use the space.
“The supplemental income is great, but better is to host international artists,” Enright said.
Spoleto alone mounts around 30 performances in the venue each spring, and next year, the playhouse could serve as an after-hours hub for festival artists.
Comedians Rory Scovel and Dusty Slay have taken the mic in the space, as have various musicians. On Dec. 13, Justin Osborne of the popular band Susto will close out his solo U.S. tour at the playhouse.
The 17,000-square-foot playhouse is a former meat-packing facility owned by the Meddin family that Enright, her husband and Managing Director David Reinwald and the rest of her staff converted into a performance space in 2012.
When Village Rep first started in 2001, it charged $18 a ticket and paid $2,500 a month in rent for a storefront in Mount Pleasant, Enright said. Today, it charges $30 a ticket and pays $13,000 a month in rent. Yet the volume of patrons attending shows has remained relatively constant.
“That’s why you have to hustle so hard,” she said.
It’s why Enright constantly keeps an eye on the bottom line while striving to prove the venue’s worth as a community arts center that presents productions, hosts artists and teaches young theater students.
But then, inevitably, someone will arrive to see a show, scan the space with awe and express delight at the unique atmosphere, Enright said.
“It’s always neat when you have someone new walk in every night, and their eyes light up, and they say, ‘Oh my God, this is so cool!’”
It makes it all worth it.