“Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place,” writes the Victorian novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, “full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions.”
The title of Thackeray’s famous novel is drawn from John Bunyan’s reference in Pilgrim’s Progress to man’s insatiably material, wanton nature. Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Vanity Fair, framed by director Jessica Stone as a frenetic Victorian burlesque pageant, puts that nature on giddy but superficial display this month at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre.
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The play highlights, in a baldly polemical manner, the tale’s feminist elements—the can’t-win, woe-is-woman exasperation with men’s simplemindedness and their Madonna/whore complexes. But in condensing the book’s hundreds of pages into a bit more than two hours of stage action, Hamill loses the novel’s emotional impact.
Thackeray’s unreliable and opinionated narrator offers a bottomless cup of caustic commentary on the action. But while Thackeray enriches the plot with that social commentary, Hamill strains the plot to extract it.
That is an unsatisfying approach. Packing in Thackerary’s two extended and shaggy story lines, Hamill doesn’t have time to let story developments stick their affective landings. Death, cuckolding, reversals of fortune, war, unrequited love, humiliation, and gross hypocrisy—all are treated with cursory sketch dialogue and a few jaded ditties. Then Hamill’s narrator, or Manager, and the characters themselves tease and chide the audience for our judgementalism before we’ve even had time or sufficient cause to form any judgments at all. Sense of place, too, is often something of a blur on Alexander Dodge’s quite static set.
It’s as though we’re being asked to react with gravitas to an extended comic strip. Thackeray was a clever critic of his world but having lived many of the ups and downs of his characters, he also wrote about them deeply and involvingly before going off on his famed acerbic riffs. Here, though, the principals are, for the most part, caricatured emblematic figures with little more weight than the actual puppets that stand in for some minor characters.
The performances are generally amusing but sometimes strained and laugh-desperate. Rebekah Brockman’s Becky Sharp, the social climber who ascends from governess to gentlewoman before starting her way down again, is seductive and vivacious. Maribel Martinez is earnest and sympathetic as Becky’s too-pure-hearted friend Amelia Sedley, whose fortunes fall and rise in an arc opposite to Becky’s.
closes March 31, 2019
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The rest of the cast assumes a variety of roles with verve augmented by Jennifer Moeller’s pleasingly peacocky costuming. I enjoyed Dan Hiatt’s gender traverse as Miss Matilda Crawley—a tough, flatulent old broad who speaks her mind and guards her fortune—as well as his Lord Steyne (tellingly pronounced Stain), an aristocratic lecher whose indecent proposal to Becky shoves her already precarious marriage over a precipice. The uncharacteristically wounded pride on the part of her husband, the soldier Rawdon, is made palpable by Adam Magill, handsome, squinty, and sardonic.
One leaves the theater, though, having been reminded of and instructed on life’s vicissitudes without really having felt the impact of Becky’s story or Amelia’s. In Hamill and Stone’s hands, Thackeray’s ironies are piquant but distant.
Shakespeare Theatre Company presents Vanity Fair at the Lansburgh Theatre, through March 31. By Kate Hamill, based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. Produced in association with American Conservatory Theater. Director: Jessica Stone. Scenic Designer: Alexander Dodge. Costume Designer: Jennifer Moeller. Lighting Designer: David Weiner. Sound Designer/Composer: Jane Shaw. Choreographer: Connor Gallagher. Fight Choreographer: Cliff Williams III. Cast: Maribel Martinez, Rebekah Brockman, Dan Hiatt, Adam Magill, Anthony Michael Lopez, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, Vincent Randazzo. Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.
The play is an extremely enjoyable, satisfying evening of theater with outstanding performances. Don’t let the above keep you from seeing it.