In honor of World Puppetry Day celebrated on March 21st, it was time to learn more about the puppetry used in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Vanity Fair, now playing on the Lansburgh stage. So, off to Vanity Fair’s creative team went I.
Jessica Stone, director, Vanity Fair: The use of puppets in this production was partly a problem-solving initiative in that we had a scene where one person plays 2 different characters in the same exchange. We also had another scene that was supposed to be crowded and seedy, and we only have a seven-actor cast. When the creative team and I got together to try and track the many scenic and costume changes one afternoon, Jennifer Moeller [costume designer] was staring at Alexander Dodge’s [scenic designer] Vanity Fair design and was inspired by the cutouts and suggested that we use them even more.
If I’m not mistaken, she was the first one to suggest puppets for that tricky multiple-track scene. It took me a couple of days to wrap my brain around using that physical vocabulary in that way. It’s such a statement that I wanted to make sure it was earned and not just a cheap trick. However, the idea that Thackeray not only uses a narrator to tell his story, but also puppeteers, really made it tempting because it felt like a nice nod to the source material. I said, hesitantly, “let’s try it but they have to look like those two-dimensional Victorian hand puppets with the jointed legs.” Ultimately, it was the spirit of the actors working the puppets that really sold me, and now, every time I see it I feel very grateful for the talent and vision of those designers and actors!
Alexander Dodge, scenic designer: The puppets were a practical solution for how to represent so many Vanity Fair characters with seven actors. The puppets, like those being bratty children, were a fun way to portray characters in a light-hearted way. After all, the production is not a museum piece; it’s a carnival. The personalities and broad behavior of each puppet came from the way the actors performed with them.
Jennifer Moeller, costume designer: The puppets help tell the Vanity Fair story. They add silly, crazy, and adorable aspects to the production. The puppets help add an unstuffy nature to scenes. In an early Vanity Fair scene, using flat two-dimensional cut-out puppets helped create crowd scenes by heightening the number of characters seen in a novel way. The “Jumping Jack” puppets used in later scenes with their hands and legs moving in unruly ways are fun.
As my DCMTA colleague Sophia Howes wrote in her review, Vanity Fair is an “irreverent look at a beloved classic.” The puppets, the creative team who invented them, and the actors who become their puppet masters deserve a round of applause for a novel way to bring good cheer to an audience.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.