Thursday, April 25, 2019

"Vanity Fair"

Vanity Fair
Kate Hamill
Based on the Novel by William Makepeace Thackeray

The Cast of Vanity Fair
Immediately, we are given advanced warning by the tuxedoed Manager of the Strand Musik Hall that “there are no morals here in our play.”  He comes to the stage’s edge to advise us in more detail: “This is Vanity Fair.  It is not a moral play.  What do these shallow players have to do with your modern lives?” 

That the name “Vanity Fair” refers to a place first created by John Bunyan as a stop-over for his 1678 Pilgrim’s Progress where a never-ending fair takes place in a town called “Vanity” should be fair warning that the play we are about to see is in fact going to live up to the sub-title its author gave the original novel Vanity Fair in 1848: “A Novel without a Hero.”  Of the more than thirty characters we are about to meet, none is without fault; but most are not completely diabolical either.  They are all just humans out to answer for themselves the two questions our Manager posits just before the story begins in earnest: “How will you get what you want?  And what will you do to get it?”  We will soon learn that for our principal protagonist, Becky Sharp, there is not much she will not do in order to ensure she does not live ever again in the poverty of her childhood.”

Kate Hamill has taken on the monumental task of collapsing William Makepeace Thackeray’s 800-page novel – considered as one of Britain’s literary masterpieces of the 19th century – and translating it onto the 21st century stage.  The playwright – who has already successfully done so for such English classics as Sense and Sensibility, Little Women, and Pride and Prejudice – accomplishes the challenge in her new play, Vanity Fair, by requiring seven actors (and various hand puppets and cut-out figures) to take on the thirty-plus characters.  Under the inspired, slight-of-hand direction of Jessica Stone and the wildly imaginative costume designs of Jennifer Moeller, actors often change roles – including ages, sexes, social classes – in a blink of the eye while in mid-sentence.  Such is only a miniscule of the brilliant choices made by director and creative team in this eye-popping, zippy, comedic production by American Conservatory Theatre (in association with Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company) of Kate Hamill’s adventure to take a 19th-century satirical treasure, Vanity Fair, and give it 21st-century edginess and engagement.

Daughter of a penniless artist father and a mother shunned for her career on the stage, Becky Sharp has had to rely on charity and many hours of floor and toilet scrubbing to go to the respected Pinkerton Academy for Girls.  As she leaves it to become a governess – the only job a young, educated woman with no means can hope to have in 1814 London – she is determined to improve her lot, declaring, “I shall win this game or die trying.”  Even though she is not considered by others to be a worthy player in the games of life the more moneyed, aristocratic society pursues, she is immediately on the look for her route into those upper classes, ready to do whatever is necessary using her keenly honed, strong-willed skills of calculation, enticement, and cunningness. 

Adam Magill & Rebekah Brockman
Rebekah Brockman is a devilish, devious Becky Sharp who is also immediately likeable in so many ways.  We may cringe at her tactics to woo the boorish, goofy brother, Jos, of her best friend, Amelia; and we may not approve her trickery to win the hand in marriage of the handsome soldier, Rawdon, son of her first employer, Sir Pitt Crawley.  However, we cannot help but admire her sheer determination, her quick-minded decision-making, and her ability to switch courses of action on the spot in order to manipulate, nay to control the real-time play she is writing for herself with a planned outcome of financial security.  Becky undergoes many situational and personality alterations in the course of her life story – all masterfully, believably, and memorably performed by Ms. Brockman.  Even when she reaches her lowest, more despicable, most unforgivable points (and there are many), her Becky is still someone we cannot help but guiltily cheer her on, given her sheer, stubborn determination to survive and more importantly, to thrive.

Maribel Martinez
Often the Yin to Becky’s Yang is her best and only friend from school days, the good-hearted, good-natured, and much-generous Amelia Sedley.  As convincingly played by Maribel Martinez, Amelia often sees something in Becky that others around her do not – a reason to love her.  While her Amelia approaches sainthood for some of the life burdens she will be called upon to bear, her Amelia is also quite human and fully able to rage into a childish, temper tantrum; to give a blind eye to the obvious sins of a cheating husband, George; or to ignore the clearly obvious adoration of a lifelong friend, Dobbin, who loves her and continually comes to her aid without receiving a return of such love.

Dan Hiatt & Rebekah Brockman
Surrounding these two completely different but equally strong-willed women is a host of characters ranging from eccentric to quirky to evil to hilarious.  We first meet Dan Hiatt as the evening’s oft-intervening narrator, entitled The Manager.  He enters at times to coach/advise/admonish our two heroines, and at other times, does the same to us as audience – even pointing out individual members in the theatre to throw a jab or two.  But with the quick swish of a front-half-only quilted robe and old lady’s feather-capped wig of grey curls, he instantaneously transforms in voice, countenance, and demeanor into the aged Miss Matilda – wealthy, spinster aunt of Becky’s husband, whom Becky has designs to win over her cantankerous nature in order for her husband, Rawdon, to receive her inheritance.  Dan Hiatt’s flatulent-prone, high-pitched Matilda spits out little, naughty gems that tickle the conspiring Becky (such as “a little creaky and leaky is normal for my age”), but Miss Matilda also has an indignant ire that will rise to volcanic proportions when she discovers more about this lower-class intruder, Becky.

Dan Hiatt will continue to rule the evening’s stage as he becomes later a diabolical, sleaze ball, Lord Steyne.  Steyne will provide Becky with much needed cash as her gambling husband sends them into debt but who will also demand repayment in ways the flirting, teasing Becky is sometimes willing, sometimes reluctant to give.

Adam Magill is Becky’s husband, Captain Rawdon Crawley, a tall, handsome fellow whose talents mostly pay out at the gambling table, with Becky eager to be a partner in schemes meant to cheat other players out of their money.  Mr. Magill’s Rawdon has many likeable, even admirable qualities – including a father’s love for a son the ex-governess mother purposefully ignores – but he also is blind and/or too-forgiving to many of his wife’s dubious dealings with other men.  Among other roles, Adam Magill is also adorable and comical as Amelia’s bent-kneed, ailing father, Mr. Sedley.

Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, Vincent Randozzo & Anthony Michael Lopez
Sir Pitt Crawley, Becky’s first employer, is portrayed by the wild-haired, wild-eyed Vincent Randazzo, who is also the Twiddle-Dee-looking brother of Amelia, Jos – a man-still-boy who repeatedly cannot help but fall under the viperous spell of Becky.  Mr. Randazzo also delightfully becomes a weepy servant named Miss Jemima, a society snob named Lady Chesterton, and a royally robed and crowned King George looking to turn a game of pantomime with Becky into a game of hump-the-king in bed.

Anthony Michael Lopez is the mean and moralistic, Miss Pinkerton, proprietor of the plush academy both Amelia and Becky attend as girls.  He is hilarious as the screeching Miss Pinkerton with her loud disapproval of the lower-class Becky, whom she sees as “a menace to this school and a menace to society.”  But Mr. Lopez, among other transformations such as the puppeteer of Lady Crowley, is primarily on stage as Amelia’s loyal friend and would-be lover, William Dobbin, who naively stays true to her even as she continues to ignore his love.  In that role, the sad-eyed, stoically-stance Mr. Lopez is like the ever-trustful, ever-loyal family dog who takes some abuse, is mostly ignored, but is always ready and eager to please.

Anthony Michael Lopez & Vincent Randazzo
Rather than William, Amelia instead focuses all her love on George Osborne, William’s best friend and fellow soldier who only marries Becky after William convinces him it is the noble thing to do (George having previously dropped her after her father loses his stock exchange job and subsequently his fortune).  Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan is appropriately slimy and dislikable as George, who soon ventures beyond his new wife to tempt her more outgoing, more risqué best friend, Becky.  Ms. Keegan also plays a variety of completely bizarre and zany characters, including Miss Matilda’s much-maligned and hilarious servant, Miss Briggs, and the puppeteer and voice of Rawdon’s brother, Lesser Pitt.

Somehow, Director Jessica Stone magically orchestrates the seamless comings and goings and on-stage alterations of this parade of Becky’s fiendish, freaky, and funny acquaintances (with a couple of genuinely good folks like Amelia and Dobbin also showing up from time to time).  This “vanity fair” of Becky’s world takes place in an immense stage setting of the Strand Musick Hall, the actual site of musical burlesques, pantomimes, and operettas after it opened in 1864.  Designed by Alexander Dodge, the ACT stage is awash with remembrances of that era with dropping curtains of period, scenic drawings; with rolled cloths on giant frames that turn to reveal new background drawings of parlors or street scenes; and with hung paintings that serve to set a larger context of a country manor or a city’s home.  The aforementioned costumes of Jennifer Moeller are a back-stage’s storehouse of quick changes, elaborate ruffles and ribbons, and wigs that quickly come and go before our eyes. 

As mind-blowing as much of this imaginatively wild creation by Kate Hamill, Jessica Stone, and A.C.T. is, there is at least one major issue.  Peppering the evening are both ensemble and solo sung numbers – composed by Sound Designer Jane Shaw – that often are neither performed that well nor make a lot of sense.  They certainly have the air, feel, and look in presentation of a pre-Vaudeville, music-hall era; but the lyrics are too often non-discernable; and when they are understood, they do not do much to advance or enhance the story.

Because that story is somewhat complicated and is told in this version in such a wonderfully unusual manner, I at times found the first act a bit difficult to retain full focus and to stay interested.  There are early moments of stop-start-action pantomimes; there are cast-choreographed sequences that abruptly intervene into the story; and there are of course the many characters that change quickly and constantly their personas.  By Act Two, the story settles into a more understandable flow with characters we now know a bit better; and we also finally become emotionally more involved and attached to their outcomes.  Perhaps fewer of the clever touches in the early telling might aid a quicker commitment by someone like myself to the intrigue of the story itself.

That said, American Conservatory Theatre’s production of Kate Hamil’s adaptation of Vanity Fair is a smorgasbord of production surprises whose massive undertaking by both playwright and director results in an intriguing story whose final message is a warning to us all in today’s materialistic society:  “We want what we want and nothing can stop us ... Welcome to Vanity Fair.”

Rating: 4 E

Vanity Fair continues through May 12, 2019 on the Geary Stage of American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Scott Suchman

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