Vanity Fair, Shakespeare Theatre Company

In many ways, Vanity Fair has a similar shine to staging some of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays: all the stature of a classic but one that the audience might not actually be quite familiar with. It's a boon to playwright Kate Hamill, who is able to transform William Makepeace Thackeray's lengthy novel into a piece for seven actors, streamlining story beats to reach the heart of her two primary figures: Becky Sharpe (Rebekah Brockman) and Amelia Sedley (Maribel Martinez).  When classical theatre so often lacks for substantial roles for women, Hamill's play puts them front and center (and with the fluid amount of doubling and tripling of parts, it also allows for actor Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan to join them while playing primarily male roles).

Kate Hamill's work was most notably seen onstage in DC during the fall of 2016 in a run of her adaptation of Sense and Sensibility at the Folger Theatre, where the play's dynamic theatrical energy made for a smashing success. Here, that energy is funneled into a device, proclaiming the evening a Victorian burlesque staged at the Strand Musick Hall. It's an odd choice, as it puts another level of artifice between the story and the audience, one that proclaims that the actors can get away with silliness because we're all here in the Victorian equivalent of an off-off-Broadway theatre, rather than that silliness can exist because we're all of us here, together, in the here and now, creating theatre together. The frame seems apologetic at times, when I'd much rather let the ensemble tell me the story than hear another song between scenes.

Photo of the cast of Vanity Fair by Scott Suchman.

When the actors are able to focus on the story itself, Jessica Stone's direction proves nimble and incisive, never neglecting giving the audience the time to see the heart of the characters.  Brockman's Becky Sharpe is almost too smart for her own good, able to see through the unspoken assumptions of society so keenly that she can maneuver herself through its highs and lows without losing her own sense of honest self-knowledge.  Martinez gives Amelia Sedley, Becky's foil, as much nuance as naivety, pushing through a life with very limited options. Adam Magill and Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan both do excellent work as a pair of less-than-ideal husbands, while Dan Hiatt's turns entering the story are all compelling.

Stone's production asks the audience again and again not to judge its characters, to imagine how we'd be judged in turn if our lives were put on stage for future generations. I'd be hard pressed to forget the images of this Becky Sharpe, fighting for her life in ballgowns and drawing rooms, carving out a different path through a mountain that a kinder world would have moved out of her way. 


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