Review: ‘Vanity Fair’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company

“I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year.” –Becky Sharp

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) is considered a great writer. Vanity Fair, despite its flaws, is his finest novel. It is a commentary on many things; the cost of war, the vicissitudes of love, and the selfishness and greed people often inflict on others. Thackeray called Vanity Fair “A Novel Without a Hero” and its heroine, the witty, amoral Becky Sharp, is one of the most memorable characters in fiction. Her foil, the pretty, gentle Amelia Sedley, can be frustrating at times, but even Amelia grows up enough during the story to win our respect. The book is also deliciously comic, and this is the aspect that playwright Kate Hamill happily chooses to emphasize.

The cast of 'Vanity Fair' at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Scott Suchman.
The cast of ‘Vanity Fair’ at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Her adaptation of Vanity Fair is a musical extravaganza, lavishly produced and directed with creative verve by Jessica Stone. It’s a Victorian burlesque (not that kind), in which a company of actors playfully lampoon a literary work. Hamill places special importance on the theme of female identity, focusing on the vastly different fates of Becky and Amelia. It has singing, dancing, puppetry, and a resplendent physical production. Hamill, like Noël Coward, has “a talent to amuse” and her Vanity Fair is fast-paced and fun.

The opening musical number, welcoming us to Vanity Fair, features the whole cast. Dan Hiatt as the Manager introduces us to the festivities. We first meet Becky (Rebekah Brockman) and Amelia (Maribel Martinez) at Miss Pinkerton’s academy. Miss Pinkerton (Anthony Michael Lopez) orders Becky around with frenzied glee. Becky and Amelia are besties at this point. Becky has been invited to Amelia’s home for a break before she faces a harrowing future as a governess. (We all know what Jane Eyre went through.)

Two notable elements of the presentation are immediately evident. First, there will be lots of cross-dressing, particularly men in drag, and it is a hoot. Secondly, Martinez as Amelia and Brockman as Becky turn in excellent performances, which serve to anchor us as an audience in the middle of the music and mayhem.

One sequence takes place at Amelia’s home, where clever Becky lures Amelia’s plump, shy brother Jos (Vincent Randazzo) into an entanglement which goes hilariously wrong. It is interesting to note that Thackeray, who was 6 foot 3, huge by Victorian standards, used as one of his journalistic pseudonyms “Our Fat Contributor.”

Amelia is deeply in love with George Osborne (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), a vain young man who thinks Amelia lucky to have attracted his attention. She is in turn adored by George’s friend Dobbin (Anthony Michael Lopez) whom she cherishes as a friend but nothing more.

Once she becomes their governess, Becky easily gains mastery of the family at Queen’s Crawley. Old Sir Pitt is an unpleasant fellow, but his handsome son Rawdon (Adam Magill) falls in love with Becky. Rawdon is in awe of Becky’s intelligence, and the two seem destined for a relatively happy married life, providing that Rawdon’s Aunt Matilda (Dan Hiatt) will thoughtfully die and leave her fortune to her nephew.

Rebekah Brockman as Becky Sharp and Adam Magill as Rawdon in 'Vanity Fair' at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Rebekah Brockman as Becky Sharp and Adam Magill as Rawdon in ‘Vanity Fair’ at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Here the patriarchy steps in with a vengeance. Amelia’s father is ruined; George is disinherited for marrying Amelia. Aunt Matilda, though liberal in the abstract, becomes enraged when Rawdon ties himself to a mere governess, and disinherits him too.

In 1815 Napoleon (did I mention Vanity Fair is set during the Napoleonic wars?) escapes from Elba and war is declared. The two couples follow the Duke of Wellington and his army to Brussels. George Osborne carries on a flagrant flirtation with Becky, which Amelia notices to her sorrow. (She and George have only been married for six weeks.) The fond farewells of the two couples are interrupted by an incident which will have vast implications for their future.

Rebekah Brockman is an enthralling Becky. When she returns to London after the war, she becomes the queen of society and is presented to the king. She has numerous admirers, among them the wealthy and corrupt Lord Steyne (Dan Hiatt). This will have disastrous consequences for her marriage.

Of necessity, a great deal of the novel is not included in this adaptation. Many subordinate characters do not appear. The arc of Becky’s character is slightly changed and some of her escapades are altered a bit, making her a more sympathetic character. Her friendship with Amelia becomes deeper and more complex towards the end.

For me, Thackeray’s version of these events, in which Amelia never trusts Becky again after her dalliance with George, is more realistic.

Rebekah Brockman as Becky Sharp and Maribel Martinez as Amelia Sedley in 'Vanity Fair' at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Rebekah Brockman as Becky Sharp and Maribel Martinez as Amelia Sedley in ‘Vanity Fair’ at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The comedy is unusually farcical, and the characters can often be found shouting at each other. But all the performances are enjoyable, and the entire ensemble–Actor Two: (Rawdon, etc.): Adam Magill; Actor Three: (Dobbin, etc.) Anthony Michael Lopez; Actor Four: (George, etc.) Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan; and Actor Five (Jos., etc): Vincent Randazzo–interpret their multiple roles with alacrity and style.

Vanity Fair is visually lovely. Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge has created a Strand Music Hall, with Ionic columns and boxes. This is supplemented by eye-catching painted scenery which is rolled in and out. Lighting Designer David Weiner makes especially striking use of shadows, which loom behind the actors as they perform. Costume Designer Jennifer Moeller has outdone herself (which it seems almost impossible to do) with a dizzying variety of outfits, wigs, and gowns of every description. The musical numbers are entertaining and the cast dances with giddy abandon. Sound Designer/Composer is Jane Shaw. Choreographer is Connor Gallagher.

Vanity Fair, an irreverent look at a beloved classic, is a cheering diversion in these uncertain times. Don’t miss it.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Vanity Fair plays through March 31, 2019, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-547-1122 or go online.

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Sophia Howes
Sophia Howes has been a reviewer for DCMTA since 2013 and a columnist since 2015. She is a playwright and director. An early draft of her play Southern Girl was performed at the Public Theater-NY, and two of her plays, Rosetta’s Eyes and Solace in Gondal, were produced at the Playwrights’ Horizons Studio Theatre. She studied with Curt Dempster at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where her play Madonna was given a staged reading at the Octoberfest. Her one-acts Better Dresses and The Endless Sky, among others, were produced as part of Director Robert Moss’s Workshop-NY. She has directed The Tempest, at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheatre, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Monongalia Arts Center, both in Morgantown, WV. She studied English at Barnard, and received her BFA with honors in Drama from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Seidman Award for playwriting. Her play Adamov was produced at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row-NY. She holds an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where received the Lucille Lortel Award for playwriting. She studied with, among others, Michael Feingold, Len Jenkin, Lynne Alvarez, and Tina Howe. Her father, Carleton Jones, long-time Real Estate Editor and features writer for the Baltimore Sun, inspired her to become a writer.