Review: Georgia Ensemble’s reach exceeds its grasp in ‘Vanity Fair’

“Vanity Fair,” Georgia Ensemble’s stage version of the classic William Makepeace Thackeray novel, performs through March 6 at the Roswell Cultural Arts Center.
Courtesy of Casey Ford

Combined ShapeCaption
“Vanity Fair,” Georgia Ensemble’s stage version of the classic William Makepeace Thackeray novel, performs through March 6 at the Roswell Cultural Arts Center. Courtesy of Casey Ford

Becky Sharp, the hardly honorable antiheroine of William Makepeace Thackeray’s satirical 1848 British novel “Vanity Fair,” is a scheming “social adventurer” whose dubious intentions and doubtful integrity very much get the better of her in the end.

Fittingly, at least to a degree, such is also the case with Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s ambitious but flawed undertaking of an offbeat stage version of the classic story (written by Kate Hamill, whose previous credits include similarly unconventional adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Little Women”).

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s “Vanity Fair,” featuring Tamil Periasamy (from left), Tatyana Arrington and Eric Lang, continues through March 6. Courtesy of Casey Ford

Credit: Casey Ford

Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s “Vanity Fair,” featuring Tamil Periasamy (from left), Tatyana Arrington and Eric Lang, continues through March 6.
Courtesy of Casey Ford

Credit: Casey Ford

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s “Vanity Fair,” featuring Tamil Periasamy (from left), Tatyana Arrington and Eric Lang, continues through March 6. Courtesy of Casey Ford

Credit: Casey Ford

Credit: Casey Ford

That’s not to insinuate anything unscrupulous about the professional intentions or integrity of co-founder and producing artistic director Anita Farley’s well-established Roswell company, of course. To the contrary, on the one hand, the show signifies a valiant effort from a group that isn’t regularly regarded for boldly daring to think outside the proverbial box, in terms of its ordinarily mainstream programming.

The intriguing stylistic conceit of the production is that the story is being enacted by a traveling troupe of “shadow players,” as if it were some kind of glorified carnival attraction. The seedy set (by celebrated sibling designers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay) displays a number of painted posters and hanging banners advertising fortune tellers or games of chance — replete with a row of footlights at the front of the stage, which occasionally cast a decidedly harsh light (designed by Jaime Mancuso) on the more sordid developments in the plot.

On the other hand, though, as co-directed by Brenna Corner and Ensemble artistic director James Donadio (or possibly as conceived by Hamill), that darker thematic motif in “Vanity Fair” doesn’t effectively align with, say, flatulence gags. Various scenes of heightened slapstick or melodramatic posturing scarcely coincide with those of more serious or naturalistic realism.

Combined ShapeCaption
Christina Leidel co-stars in “Vanity Fair” with Georgia Ensemble Theatre. Courtesy of Casey Ford

Credit: Casey Ford

Christina Leidel co-stars in “Vanity Fair” with Georgia Ensemble Theatre.
Courtesy of Casey Ford

Credit: Casey Ford

Combined ShapeCaption
Christina Leidel co-stars in “Vanity Fair” with Georgia Ensemble Theatre. Courtesy of Casey Ford

Credit: Casey Ford

Credit: Casey Ford

After roughly three hours (including an intermission), the show begins to feel less focused than merely misguided. The stunt casting of several supporting performers in multiple roles is problematic, too, because some of them aren’t as persuasive as others in differentiating their sundry characters. If we’re not exactly sure which character they’re portraying when, or can’t discern a lot of their rapidly spoken and garbled dialogue, that can make the basic narrative unnecessarily complicated to follow.

So let’s hear it for Robin Bloodworth and Eric Lang, both of whom seize their comedic chances to cut loose in a few trivial bit parts, but who principally stand out playing it straight as the thoughtful love interests to the pair of women at the center of “Vanity Fair.”

One of those co-stars — for the first two weeks of the show’s run, anyway — is the charming Tatyana Arrington as the prim and proper Amelia Sedley, whose romantic prospects, financial security and social standing seem to fluctuate throughout the story in direct contrast to those of Becky Sharp. (Chelcy Cutwright assumes the role March 2-6.)

Combined ShapeCaption
Tatyana Arrington (left) and Christina Leidel appear in Georgia Ensemble’s “Vanity Fair.” Courtesy of Casey Ford

Credit: Casey Ford

Tatyana Arrington (left) and Christina Leidel appear in Georgia Ensemble’s “Vanity Fair.”
Courtesy of Casey Ford

Credit: Casey Ford

Combined ShapeCaption
Tatyana Arrington (left) and Christina Leidel appear in Georgia Ensemble’s “Vanity Fair.” Courtesy of Casey Ford

Credit: Casey Ford

Credit: Casey Ford

The excellent Christina Leidel runs a veritable gamut in the exceedingly difficult role of Becky. At first, she generates a genuine sympathy as an “upstart nobody” in society, and then a certain admiration with her determined aptitude for taking matters into her own hands and charting her own course in life. Later, her increasingly selfish conniving is deviously compelling to watch, until she gets exactly what she deserves and her fortunes change again, before finally redeeming herself and reclaiming a hard-earned respect.

Georgia Ensemble’s “Vanity Fair” is all over the map like that. While it doesn’t entirely succeed, it’s often hard to easily dismiss, and there’s definitely something to be said for that.


THEATER REVIEW

“Vanity Fair”

Through March 6. 7:30 Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 Sundays. $32-$49. Roswell Cultural Arts Center, 950 Forrest St., Roswell. 770-641-1260. www.get.org.

Bottom line: Pretentious, uneven, confusing, overlong — and yet strangely fascinating.