Actor and playwright Kate Hamill clearly has a love for the women of 19th Century English literature, specifically the independent-minded, put-upon women of Jane Austen and William Makepeace Thackeray's beloved 1848 novel, Vanity Fair.
Hamill has penned stage adaptations of both of Austen's best known works, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, both of which she's used as vehicles for her own New York stage career, and the American Conservatory Theater has just taken up her 2017 adaptation of Vanity Fair, featuring the seminal "nasty woman" of English lit, Becky Sharp.
Unlike Austen, who found romance and redemption for her women within the constraints of upper-class English society of her day, Thackeray took a much darker view of the world around him, and specifically how it treated women. And in Becky Sharp, in the ACT production — directed by the talented Jessica Stone — actress Rebekah Brockman finds an ambitious and rebellious heroine, and she takes a crooked-smiled pleasure in showing off her flaws and follies. While Thackeray may have sought to level some judgment on Sharp as a kind of sociopath, Stone and Brockman find her humanity amid a world that doesn't tolerate her brand of gamesmanship.
The story follows Becky for over a decade, from her graduation from an elite girls' school, to a brief stint as a governess, through a marriage to a man she loves, to an ultimate fall from grace that she can't help but own. Through the story she weaves in and out of the life of her best friend Amelia (Maribel Martinez), who exists primarily to be Becky's more moral and innocent foil — though in this production, both women share parallel journeys through poverty, prosperity, and societal scorn.
Stone's direction throughout is broadly comic, poking fun at this world with more obvious humor than Thackeray himself by way of a parade of Vaudeville-style gags, quick costume changes, and fart jokes. And Hamill's script condenses Thackeray's sweeping, 800-page tale down to its essentials, and puts seven actors into several dozen roles, tossing the Napoleonic Wars in the middle, for historical color.
A strong ensemble is anchored by ACT vet Dan Hiatt as The Manager — the omniscient and notoriously unreliable narrator of Thackeray's novel who directly addresses the reader/audience and frames the story as a kind of parable or puppet show. Hiatt has the most fun, though, in the role of Miss Matilda Crawley, Becky's champion turned estranged aunt-in-law. (Miss Crawley gets some of the choicest lines in the comedy, too, as is traditional for the dowagers of English novels.)
Adam Magill, Vincent Randazzo, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, and Anthony Michael Lopez all contribute hilariously — and incredibly flexibly — to the production in their many, many roles.
Just as delightful as the stagecraft that makes this scrappy production work — though the elaborate set by Alexander Dodge, framing the play in a faded English music hall, is anything but low-budget — is the ease with which Becky and Amelia maneuver past the men around them, wait for benefactors to die, and land on their feet — if not without some heartache and sacrifice. Do they lead entirely enviable, virtuous lives? No. But they do manage to find a kind of satisfying compromise, and one gets the sense that a sequel about Ms. Sharp's latter years would be an even more outrageous and titillating story than this one.
It's a delight, nonetheless, to find a kind of Cliff's Notes version of Vanity Fair that accomplishes so much with both its text and its subtext. The story of Becky Sharp feels incredibly relevant still, particularly in a time when we continue to judge women in the public sphere for their likability, and at times punish them for the sorts of actions that men are applauded for, when they succeed in getting one ahead. As Thackeray famous subtitled his text, this is "A Novel without a Hero."
It's also refreshing, whether Thackeray intended this or not, to find a 19th Century story in which a woman's fate doesn't rest completely on a marriage, and we see that a "fallen" woman can, in fact, keep living just fine on her own, even in such oppressive times.
'Vanity Fair' plays at the Geary Theater through May 12. Find tickets here.