Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “Vanity Fair,” directed by Jessica Stone, is a marvel and a delight, a hilarious rendition of William Makepeace Thackeray’s puckishly nasty satire that works on every level.
Playwright Kate Hamill’s new adaptation of the 1847 novel successfully solves the problem of Becky Sharp. Thackeray’s anti-heroine is no proto-feminist (as Mira Nair’s wan 2004 film adaptation tried to make her out to be), but neither is she entirely a cold, calculating villain. Becky is a climber, and a ruthless one, but Hamill makes her understandable, if not quite sympathetic.
…making this ‘Vanity Fair’ a pleasure to watch for its theatrical artistry as much as for its smart retelling of this story.
It helps that Rebekah Brockman is perfect in the role, plotting with a raised eyebrow and a half-smile as she manipulates the silly wealthy folk that surrounds her. Brockman is complemented nicely by Maribel Martinez as Amelia Sedley, Becky’s mirror-image boarding school friend, the “good girl” to Becky’s “bad.” The novel’s Amelia can come off as something of a wet blanket, but Martinez avoids this trap and makes her into a strong, underestimated woman.
Director Stone’s clever conceit is to set “Vanity Fair” in a Victorian burlesque hall, allowing for musical interludes to set the scenes and to remind us that we are watching a farcical morality play. The Manager of the hall, played with panache by Dan Hiatt, serves as our narrator and as the occasional confessor and judge of the two leading ladies.
Hiatt and the four other members of the troupe play multiple roles where they change age and swap gender with intentionally rushed costume changes — a wig tossed on here, a shawl pulled on there. (Costume designer Jennifer Moeller keeps a fine balance between these quick-change rags and the lush finery of the play’s many fancy gatherings.) Hiatt steals scenes as irreverent but doddering Matilda Crawley; another standout is Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, who plays slimily rakish George Osborne with a knowing swagger.
Stone’s staging allows for other theatrical joys, like a fancy dinner done as comic pantomime, an exaggerated round of fisticuffs between Becky and Amelia, and the use of jumping jack puppets — voiced by members of the cast — to portray some of the lesser Crawleys. There’s even a pretty good fart joke.
Because so much of Stone’s concept relies on her setting, exceptional scenic design was essential, and Alexander Dodge delivered. We see places change on shifting backdrops that are elegant yet crafted to allude to some wear and tear, and set pieces and furniture that are dragged on and shoved off the stage to keep up the pace.
This is a show where every part of the production — the script, the direction, the artistic and technical design, and the acting — needed to work in clockwork unison to succeed. Any one failure would have impaired the whole. But all succeed, making this “Vanity Fair” a pleasure to watch for its theatrical artistry as much as for its smart retelling of this story.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
“Vanity Fair” runs through March 31, 2019, at the Lansburgh Theatre at Shakespeare Theatre Company, 450 7th Street NW in Washington. Click here for tickets.