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A small, but enormously talented cast of seven, is delighting audiences attending the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “Vanity Fair,” a farcical and witty delight courtesy of playwright Kate Hamill’s new adaptation.
Based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1847 English novel about the world of social climbing and the search for wealth, the play follows the lives of two female friends who come from entirely different backgrounds and whose lives take sudden twists and turns over a 12-year period. As their fortunes rise and fall, at the heart of the play are the questions “How does a woman in a patriarchal society get what she wants?” and, “How much does class or gender determine the answer?”
Hamill wonderfully paints a picture of complex, vibrant women who, in their climb up the social ladder, are neither good nor bad—just human beings. She also points out that self-deception, hypocrisy and contradictions are common to us all, noting that she wanted to focus on “how we harshly judge women—both in Thackeray’s time, and today.”
Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the plot revolves around the calculating Becky Sharp (Rebekah Brockman), a moneyless orphan who is determined to make her way in society. She and her best friend Amelia Sedley (Maribel Martinez), a simple-minded, well-bred young woman from a wealthy London family, have just completed their time at a prestigious boarding school. While Amelia has a marriage prospect in the form of Captain George Osborne (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), the dashing, but self-obsessed, son of a wealthy stockbroker, Becky is doomed to live the life of a lowly governess.
Director Jessica Stone brilliantly introduces us to the characters by framing the story in a Victorian burlesque hall, and the audience watches a company of outlandish actors put on a show. A narrator (Dan Hiatt) guides us through the hilarious storyline, challenging the watchers and reminding them that the people depicted are not more fallible than you or me. It is about us, too.
The cast gets to display their ample talent, with five characters playing multiple roles as they swap gender, change age and change into a variety of costumes, often directly on stage.
As Becky Sharp, Brockman is wonderfully cunning and power hungry, plotting first to marry Amelia’s clumsy, unattractive brother, Jos, (Vincent Randazzo), if it will mean changing her social status. When she becomes a governess and marries Rawdon (Adam Magill), the son of the cranky Sir Crawley Pitt, she evokes sympathy from the audience, initially, when she seems to have changed her stripes. Later, her acceptance of money and jewels from the wily and licentious Lord Steyne who opens doors for her will change her fate again.
As the demure Amelia, Martinez is sincere and believable as the gentle young woman blind to the dark side of the handsome George who will later prove to be a cad and ultimately unworthy. When Amelia falls into poverty when her father loses his wealth in the stock market, she marries George, who is disinherited by his own father because of Amelia’s fallen status. Amelia later will have to make a hard choice to save her father and her son George, when George is killed in the Battle of Waterloo.
Keegan shines in the roll as the drunken, philandering George and later has the audience in stitches as a doddering, timid servant. Hiatt’s larger than life presence steals almost every scene he is in. He easily morphs from the flatulent Matilda Crawley, the wealthy spinster sister of Sir Pitt Crawley, to the conniving Lord Steyne, who will be responsible for Becky’s ultimate downfall.
Rounding out the excellent cast is Anthony Michael Lopez who plays William Dobbin, a friend of George, who secretly loves Amelia. Lopez is valiant and honorable in the role, and impressively does a 360 degree turn as the utterly nasty and horrid boarding school headmistress.
Throughout the play, the friendship between the two women always lies in the background, each facing similar life challenges, and despite using entirely different tactics, unable to escape the patriarchal system that punishes them “for both obeying and breaking the rules,” Hamill notes. At the end, it is Amelia’s inability to see Dobbin’s love that sets up an opportunity for Becky to redeem herself by telling Amelia the truth about George, proving to be the ultimate friend.
Alexander Dodge’s post-card scenic design beautifully captures the look of that period, and Jennifer Moeller’s gorgeous costumes add opulence and style.
“Vanity Fair” is onstage through March 31. For tickets, visit shakespearetheatre.org.