Vanity Fair

American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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“This is Vanity Fair, and it is not a moral place. Nor is it often a merry one.” 

It’s no easy trick to distill William Makepeace Thackeray’s famous and lengthy 1848 novel, “Vanity Fair,” into a two-plus-hour stage production, without sacrificing either the plot or the lofty satire behind the plot. Much-admired playwright Kate Hamill (“Sense & Sensibility”) chose to forfeit the satire for the plot, and turns what Thackeray subtitled “A Novel without a Hero” into a two-act, (one intermission) animated burlesque entertainment that retains only the bare bones of the account of grasping, clever, amoral Becky Sharp’s social climb into 19th century English high society, and little to none of Thackeray’s wit, irony and social commentary.

The title, “Vanity Fair” comes from John Bunyan’s 1678 “Pilgrim’s Progress,” in which an endless fair in a town called Vanity represented one’s wicked attachment to worldly things. And in this adaptation of Thackeray’s novel, Becky Sharp (terrific Rebekah Brockman), the poor orphan from a lower-class family, struggles for money, acceptance, and glamour, irrespective of whom she must destroy to get them. And her list of those destroyed is long, including her best friend from school, the sympathetic, mild-mannered and virtuous Amelia Sedley (first-rate Maribel Martinez), Amelia’s awkward brother Jos (fine Vincent Randazzo), Becky’s handsome husband Rawdon Crawley (excellent Adam Magill), and Becky’s (offstage) young son.

Amelia Sedley, on the other hand, is virtuous but lacks Becky’s street smarts. She falls for and marries the immature dandy George Osborne (outstanding acting by Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), rather than the faithful and honest, yet dour, William Dobbin (topnotch work by Anthony Michael Lopez).

Both Amelia and Becky find their lives turned upside down when Napoleon escapes from Elba, the stock market dives and war is declared. George Osborne, William Dobbin, and Rawdon Crawley are all deployed to fight Napoleon’s forces near Brussels.

After the war, Amelia and Becky both have sons, but suffer reduced circumstances and fall into lower social circles. But Becky revives her upward climb, and she is patronized by the rich, powerful and lecherous Marquis of Steyne (amusingly pronounced Stain) (best Dan Hiatt).

This comedic adaptation of “Vanity Fair” has the right surface look and feel. All the acting is first-rate, especially Rebekah Brockman and Dan Hiatt, who plays the top-hatted Manager, or masters of ceremonies. He also shines in his role as the old, no-nonsense Miss Matilda Crawley, with a fabulous on-stage costume change.

Jessica Stone’s very able direction keeps the action moving, and there are many clever touches. The charming Victorian hand-drawn stage set (Scenic Designer, Alexander Dodge), the costumes and their quick changes (Costume Designer, Jennifer Moeller), the creative puppetry, the choreography (Conner Gallagher), the stop-motion dinner, and the fight scene (Cliff Williams III), all add to the considerable charm of the production.

Yet, “Vanity Fair” remains mostly superficial, with the plot zipping by, and little of Thackeray’s social commentary making the cut. So we are left with a delicious buttered-toasted bun, crisp pickle, fresh lettuce, and tangy sauce, but not enough beef.

“Vanity Fair” is a co-production with Washington, D. C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.

By Emily S. Mendel


©Emily S. Mendel 2019    All Rights Reserved.

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