Kate Hamill’s Social Climber Keeps on Falling Down
by Carly Van Liere & Barry David Horwitz
Adapting William Thackeray’s vast Victorian novel Vanity Fair, playwright Kate Hamill ridicules the self-serving rituals of the snobbish English upper-crust. She portrays the elite in clownish, flamboyant style and farcical staging. Male actors throw on comical Victorian dresses and crooked wigs to become hilarious British matriarchs. And women become strutting red-coated soldiers.
Hamill’s anti-hero Becky Sharp (inspired Rebekah Brockman) cleverly pursues clout and wealth. She’s an orphan of French descent—bad news for her, since in 1810, England is fighting the dreaded Napoleon. Becky, a poor charity student, is abused by her nasty school-mistress for being “uppity.”
In this soap opera on steroids, the actors dash full-tilt through bankruptcies, failures, family rejections, and vainglorious wars—with great laughs. Through the comedy, “Vanity Fair” asks: “Do we live like Becky, accepting a huge wealth gap, and blind to poor women’s suffering?”
An exploited woman, Becky exploits friend and foe. When she visits the home of her loyal school-chum Amelia Sedley (sweet Maribel Martinez), Becky goes for Amelia’s bumbling brother Jos (witty Vincent Randazzo). She’s after the money—her only goal in life!
The raucous cabaret-style Manager of the popular music hall (bubbling, infectious Dan Hiatt) addresses us directly, inviting us into the circus of “Vanity Fair”—where the amoral wealthy flourish. He coaxes us into the whirligig of self-indulgence. As Sugar Daddy Lord Steyne, he dangles money in front of Becky, inviting us to see ourselves in her.
“Vanity Fair” ridicules a brittle, selfish One-Per Cent, teetering on the edge of ruin. Sound familiar?
ACT’s rich English farce takes place on a grand vaudeville stage, with “The Strand Musick Hall” engraved on the high stone arch. The stage set by Alexander Dodge adds lots of decadent red velvet curtains and rich, gold trim. Actors roll out giant framed murals depicting jammed narrow streets. Two stone balconies jut out precariously over the stage, so the upper crust can look down upon “commoners.”
Adam Magill plays a wonderful, bow-legged, grinning stockbroker, reveling in physical comedy. Then, as Rawdon, Becky’s husband, Magill plays a slick lady-killer in a scarlet uniform who finds his moral compass. Anthony Michael Lopez effortlessly embodies Dobbin, a loyal suitor of generous Amelia. Rawdon, Dobbin, and Amelia all reject the vanities that Becky worships.
Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan plays Amelia’s unfaithful husband to heighten male immorality. “Vanity Fair” shows how easy it is to cross the line—as actors cross genders, cross classes, and cross ethical limits.
The style of the production is over-the-top comedy—signaling that the upper crust will have its way. They sing the lesson: “Everybody is just doing their best.” But they have no goal—only money and nationalism motivate them—and love is for sale.
The guys in scarlet uniforms go off to India, to make fortunes for the Empire. And they go to war with Napoleon to smother France’s threatening revolutionary ideals. Plucky Becky will do anything to join the men at the top of the social ladder.
ACT’s “Vanity Fair” asks: “Are we Becky Sharp all over again?”
All photos by Scott Suchman
“Vanity Fair” by Kate Hamill, based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackery, directed by Jessica Stone, scenic design by Alexander Dodge, costume design by Jennifer Moeller, lighting design by David Weiner, at American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco, through Sunday, May 12, 2019. Info: act-sf.org
Cast: Rebekah Brockman, Dan Hiatt, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, Anthony Michael Lopez, Adam Magill, Maribel Martinez, and Vincent Randazzo.
Banner photo: Anthony Michael Lopez & Vincent Randazoo.