Don’t judge us, the characters in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new adaptation of Vanity Fair keep admonishing the audience. You don’t know where I’ve been. You would have done the same. I was only trying to do the right thing.
Of course, 2019 theatre audiences aren’t quite the stringent moralists that 1848 novel readers were. I didn’t see any crossed arms or disapproving glares at the Lansburgh Theatre, where this quick-on-its-feet Vanity Fair is playing until the end of the month. We don’t actually care if people in plays are Good or Kind or even really Redeemable. We just want them to be involving, really, with a compelling story around them.
At this, Vanity Fair, directed by Jessica Stone and adapted by Kate Hamill, succeeds, though not always with flying colors. The performances are grand and the pacing and tone spot-on, but I could do without some of the trimmings.
Take the Our Town-esque character of the Manager, for example, who has been adapted from William Makepeace Thackery’s winking narrator to a more leering, top-hatted carnival barker type, literally wagging his finger at Becky Sharp (Rebekah Brockman) and Amelia Sedley (Maribel Martinez) while simultaneously sweeping their errors under the rug. Actor Dan Hiatt is good in the role (though better as the rich spinster Matilda Crawley), but it’s written with far too much self-satisfaction, an emotion that spills over into some musical numbers.
The songs are largely a mistake. This story comes with enough pageantry as it is (indeed, it IS a pageant in a lot of ways), no need to tart it up. Never mind that the opening number manages to insult both Alexander Dodge’s set and Jennifer Moeller’s costumes, neither of which deserves it.
But like I said: Those are just the embellishments. The core of this social satire is a well-oiled machine, and the core of that machine, of course, is the convivial, ambitious Becky and the sweet-and-sugar Amelia, plotting, grasping, pleading and shielding their way through England and the continent. They each have a son, they get box seats to Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, and one of them even meets the king.
Brockman and Martinez have a doozy of a time with their characters ever-shifting fortunes, one sometimes landing good fortunes just as the other’s fail. The script often has them — on opposite sides of the stage and in completely different circumstances — speaking lines in unison, reflecting the choral nature of their journey.
For all the story’s pleading about moral equivalence, the pious, moral Amelia sure does end up with everything she needs to make her happy, while the famous Miss Sharp … less so. Hamill’s ending, though very satisfying, is different from Thackery’s. No spoilers here, though the characters do show a surprising capacity for change that is partially, if not entirely, optimistic.
But don’t judge them.