Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
The design of Pearl Theatre's Vanity Fair
Yes, of course, the Pearl Theatre Company's production of Vanity Fair is set in a series of high-society homes and schools in the early 19th-century. After all, Kate Hamill's play is adapted from William Makepeace Thackery's classic satirical novel about Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, two women from vastly different backgrounds who learn to play the vicious games of the British upper class. As we watch them maneuver the stage – trying to manipulate both men and public perceptions in order to stay fed, clothed, and safe – we see them move past elegant wallpaper and posh fainting couches. We see them fight for money and power around lovely dining room tables and elegant old pianos.
But that's not all we see. Because just like Thackery's novel, which suggests the entire story is a puppet show, the Pearl's production insists that Becky and Amelia exist in a larger context.
Take Sandra Goldmark's set design. The fancy wallpaper evokes the tale's era, but it's ripped and peeling, exposing large sections of the walls and floor. Meanwhile, a chair is hanging overhead, like a prop that's still in storage, and other props and boxes are stacked around the room. No matter how tony these characters seem, then, the set reminds us that they're also disheveled. Their trappings might be luxe, but their grasping materialism has tarnished the silver.
This aesthetic was partially inspired by the contemporary photographer Matt Lambros, who takes gorgeous pictures of decaying old theatres around the country. "There's this one picture of a beautiful scarf on a busted, decaying chair," Goldmark says. "It looks great, and then – ohhh – it's kind of not great when you look closer."
She saw a similar metaphor in the cover photo that Time magazine selected when it named Donald Trump as 2016's Man of the Year. "If you look at that cover closely, it's so seedy," she says. "There's a tear in the silk chair, and his hair is weirdly greasy. You can see his scalp showing through the comb-over. It's kind of shocking if you look at it closely enough."
That's an apt description for the world of Vanity Fair. Along with tattered rooms, the production also suggests an actual carnival. The walls are covered with tiny lightbulbs that you might expect to see at a fairground. (Goldmark was inspired by images of the brightly lit Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901.) There's also a red curtain hanging in the middle of the stage that gets whipped open and closed during crucial moments, the way a Midway huckster might pull back the covering from a freak show display.
These details suggest that the entire production – the entire rotting society – is a mad, whirling theme park of sin and cruelty. For Goldmark, that notion is grounded in the intentionally symbolic title of Thackery's novel. "The term 'vanity fair' is loaded with this sense of striving," she says. "It's dangerous and exhilarating and a little bit corrupt, and it comes from that concept of the carnival, where you go out to see and be seen. You go out to play and to win, if you possibly can. The concept of winning is so built into this play, which also means that someone is gonna lose. There's this idea of going to the carnival, and you win or you lose, but it goes on and on and on. You win or you lose over and over and over again."
And it's not like Becky and Amelia are the only ones at the carnival. The production is filled with modern touches – dance breaks to Beyoncé songs, playful banter with the audience – that suggest how all of us have strolled through the Vanity Fair.
That's why Goldmark likes the fairground elements of her design. As she says, "It's stuff that you still see. The lights [in our production] might be a little less modern, but a lot of it is the same. It's loud; there's dirt on the floor; there are hucksters trying to get you to play their games. There's a continuity to that that I'm fascinated by. This is where all of those threads united then, and now they still do."
Follow TDF Stages editor Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos by Russ Rowland. Top photo: The cast of 'Vanity Fair' performs some Beyoncé-inspired choreography.
TDF Members: Go here to browse our discounts for theatre, dance, and film.