BWW Review: VANITY FAIR at American Conservatory Theatre Company presents Vanity Fair, William Thackery's 19th century exploration of female conventions and ambition.
Adapted by Kate Hamill from the novel by William Makepeace Thackery
Directed by Jessica Stone
American Conservatory Theatre Company
Vanity Fair, William Thackery's 19th century exploration of female conventions and ambition as seen through the discerning eyes of Kate Hamill (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park) is a delight for the eyes and a thoughtful female perspective on gender roles that continue to evolve today. With its sparkling cast of seven actors playing dozens of roles and first-rate direction by Jessica Stone, Thackery's carnival-like satire of British society portrayed through the cunning, strong-willed Becky Sharp is as contemporary today as it was shocking in its day.
Set as a puppet play at a cheap theatre, a stage manager (Dan Hiatt) narrates the story, providing the rationale for the piece and sharp asides about the characters. His piercing query sets the stage for the proceedings: "What do you want? And what are you willing to do for it." The story follows the machinations of Beck Sharp (Rebekah Brockman), an opportunistic woman willing to do just about anything to rise through the ranks of society, not a simple feat in the rigid caste structure based on birth, family and wealth.
The plot plays like a soap opera (it was originally a 19-volume monthly serial) with the actors playing multiple characters with a simple costume change. Hiatt's narrator becomes the outrageously flatulent grand dame Matilda Crawley and Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan (George, Lesser Pitt, Miss Briggs and others) has a comic field day playing a series of male roles adding to the gender fluidity of Stone's direction.
Becky manipulates those around her, makes her own situations and plays with the hearts of the men around her. Opportunism abounds despite her meager upbringing. The upper crust characters, many played by the hilarious Vincent Randazzo (Jos, Sir Pitt, Lady Chesterton) are weak, vain and self-absorbed. Few of the characters are 'likable', including Becky herself. Yes, she's a go-getter eager to change her circumstances, but her deeds are unseemly. The two female leads (Maribel Martinez's passive Amelia) illustrate two archetypical female models and Hamill shows us the limiting characteristics of each.
The cast is top notch: Anthony Michael Lopez (Dobbin, Miss Pinkerton, Rose Crawley, others) and Adam Magill (Rawdon, Mr. Sedley and others) fleshing out the characters with comic abandon that fits Stone's direction like a glove. Stone's vision is as electric as Hamill's script. Multiple conversations are juxtaposed with spilt-second timing, as are Jennifer Moeller's period costume changes. A man holds up a dress with just his arms and transforms into a woman. The actors move in a dreamlike cadence, part pantomime, part Punch and Judy puppetry through Connor Gallagher's choreography. The stage is set as a decaying theatre with two balconies from which actors appear but transforms into the swank 19th century home via scrolling tapestry panels created by Alexander Dodge and lit by David Weiner.
Hamill's adaptation is smart, fun and contemporary. A.C.T.s vision fun and technically superior. Vanity Fair shines a light on the slowly evolving concept of female equity. We can marvel at the characters of Becky, Amelia and even Matilda and think about how we perceive the women in our lives.
Vanity Fair continues through May 12th, 2019 at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater, 415 Geary street, san Francisco. Tickets available at www.act-sf.org or by calling (415) 749-2228.
Photos by Scott Suchman