By Kendall Tamer
BU News Service
CAMBRIDGE – “Vanity Fair: An (Im-)morality Play” at Central Square Theatre is a deliciously weird, fever dream of an experience. From its chaotic, framework set, to its cast of colorful characters, the play enchants with wild (and at times crass) humor and a surprisingly weighty message.
Amongst the simulated sex, fart jokes and Lady Gaga piano instrumentals, there is a message for the audience about what makes us “good” or what makes us “bad” and whether or not someone can be both. While the play is meant to amuse us, it is also meant to leave us wondering about our own ideas of morality and values.
“One must never be too good, or too bad,” the narrator says. “The world will punish you for both.”
The play begins with the two main protagonists in 19th century England, dressed up with carnival lights, bold wardrobe choices, a sneakily contemporary soundtrack and a hodgepodge of other nods to the modern age. This chosen backdrop is flashy and garish in the best ways possible, reminiscent of the 2001 film, “Moulin Rouge.”
Amelia, the “good” girl raised with money, and Rebecca, the “bad” girl and an orphan, are graduating from the same academy for ladies, one to be betrothed to a wealthy gentleman, the other to become a … governess (gag). But as it often does, fortunes change. And then they change again. And then they change again.
As Becky breaks the rules and Amelia stays steadfast in her morals, the story follows their misadventures. With a witty, fourth-wall-breaking narrator at the helm, we watch as these two women fall in love, have children, make mistakes and experience hardship.
Becky plots to find fortune however necessary but winds up married to a man with no money. She makes too many deals with devils and ends up having it all, only for it never to be enough, and then to inevitably lose it all. Amelia unwittingly marries a cowardly, cruel man. After giving birth to a son, her father loses everything to stocks, she is widowed by the Napoleonic Wars and her late husband’s best friend is pining for her. Their lives and decisions continue to intertwine as the actors play multiple roles to portray the eclectic personalities that the two ladies encounter throughout.
Josephine Moshiri Elwood as Rebecca “Becky” Sharp is a blast to watch and paints a character who is at times both deplorable and utterly relatable. She can make the audience wheeze with laughter but also go silent when she delivers real tears onstage. Debra Wise as the narrator is delightful, and Paul Melendy as William Dobbins is at once awkward and charming and impossible not to root for.
The small but mighty cast packs a powerful punch, all clearly enjoying every moment so that audiences can enjoy it, too.
It’s a tumultuously good time, filled to the brim with laughter, zest and the occasional Whoopie cushion. But in rare, raw moments, our heroines break the fourth wall to deliver dramatic soliloquies. They suddenly drop their false, plummy English accents. The stage darkens, and they stand in singular spotlights to speak to us and ask us: “Who are you to judge?”
As the narrator asks the audience, “Who doesn’t enjoy a mortal drama?” In the end, we see that Amelia can’t get what she wants until she is willing to bend the rules and Rebecca sees the dangers of going too far.