EVERYONE IS THRIVING FOR A WORLD NOT WORTH HAVING; KATE HAMILL’S NEW COMEDY IS SHARP AND PUNCH AND JUDY FUN.
“I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year” says the conniving Becky Sharp, the ambitious social climber. Author William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) author of the classic VANITY FAIR,; this could be his finest novel. Thackeray called Vanity Fair “A Novel Without a Hero” and its heroine, the witty, Becky Sharp, is one of the most memorable female characters in fiction. VANITY FAIR by Kate Hamill (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park) is a play with music now on stage at the American Conservatory Theatre’s Geary Stage through May 12. Set in the 1815 Victorian burlesque style on the London Strand Stage with a company of actors who lampoon with a play within play.
ACT Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon says VANITY FAIR writer Kate Hamill has become one of the most produced playwrights in America; “I love the novel Vanity Fair with the dozens of side stories.” MacKinnon’s SENSE AND SENSIBILITY will be staged later this season by ACT’s MFA program. *Kate Hamill’s says that VANITY FAIR was partly inspired by “bad audience behavior” as she watched a production of Hamlet. “A woman was sitting in front of me,” Hamill says, “and she kept leaning over and giving the most judgmental spoilers: ‘Just watch. He’s terrible to his mother.’ Hamill is fascinated by the notion that a viewer could think the story taking place onstage was not about now.
The opening musical number has a Cabaret feel, welcoming us to VANITY FAIR, featuring the whole cast. The terrific Dan Hiatt returns to the Geary stage as the company manager. This narrator introduces us to the festivities as we first meet Becky played by the spunky Rebekah Brockman and her close friend Amelia played by the stunning Maribel Martinez. School mistress Miss Pinkerton, played by Anthony Michael Lopez, tells Becky she is off to begin a new job as a governess. Hiatt advises the two young women, as well as constantly breaking the fourth wall to advise the sold out opening night audience.
With a quick on stage change including an old lady’s feather hat wig, Hiatt transforms into the silver haired Miss Matilda a grumpy spinster and aunt of Becky’s husband. Becky is in constant posture to flirt or win over any leading male for a future husband. The two girls are now BFF’s and Becky has been invited to Amelia’s home for a break before she faces a dismal future as a governess. The music and madness now accelerates as the first act becomes the classic sitcom with Punch and Judy puppetry.
Each of the seven actors show off their gifted comedy skills to play many roles from women to men and a wonder mix of hand and life size puppets. Hiatt’s comic voice includes some great lines “ I am a little creaky and leaky is normal for a lady my age” as she fills the stage with some wonderful flatulence. Hamill’s adaptation of VANITY FAIR is a musical carnival circus, but best labeled a play with music. Directed by the clever Jessica Stone she keeps Hamill’s theme of female empowerment following the rise and fall of Becky and Amelia. The book has singing, light dancing, puppets, and an Oscar Wilde sitcom feel. Hamill, like Wilde and Mel Brooks, has that Commedia dell'arte pace perfected and this VANITY FAIR is burlesque carnival, well staged with a busy set that rolls on and off with ease.
Rebekah Brockman is stupendous as Becky and shows off a beautiful voice. As the second act begins she returns to London after the war, and becomes the queen of society. Becky rises through the ranks of London's society as she is presented to the king; a goal of hers. Miss Sharp now has many admirers including the wealthy Lord Steyne also well crafted by Hiatt. And she has made many enemies on her selfish rise.
The VANITY FAIR set is a stage within a stage in the Strand Music Hall designed by Alexander Dodge that includes upper theatre boxes. The eye-catching painted scenery is rolled in and out in a drop box that flips to different backdrops. Lighting Designer David Weiner uses downstage lighting to create some wonderful shadows behind the actors as they perform. Costume Designer Jennifer Moeller crafted some eye candy 1800 variety of outfits, wigs, and gowns. The musical numbers are pop and renaissance as Choreographer Connor Gallagher keeps the company moving and bowing. Sound Designer/Composer is Jane Shaw her songs are fun and set the banner for the rise to fame. Some rousing swagger is staged by fight coach Cliff Williams.
The comedy is madness at times, and the characters talk over each other shouting and the slapstick is fast. All the performances are spot on, and the entire ensemble is an ambitious cast of seven actors playing dozens of roles with sharp direction by Jessica Stone. As fun as this climb to the top is - you don’t mind seeing Becky fail. Sharp is a character not easy to like. This overall is a fun, fast moving carnival ride, Becky makes it right as the story ends, the two women end with hope and better lives and a trip to the Fair. Next up at ACT is the Rock Opera WEIGHTLESS by the Kilbanes at the Strand Stage opening April 30th. But in the meantime join the carousel ride at VANITY FAIR and bring your own cotton candy.
American Conservatory Theatre Presents
By Kate Hamill
Directed by Jessica Stone
Only through May 12
American Conservatory Theater
405 Geary Street, San Fran
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Tickets at Geary Theatre Box Office, 405 Geary Street
Tickets are also available at 415-749-2228 and online at www.act-sf.org
CAST Adam Magill, Anthony Michael Lopez, Dan Hiatt, Rebekah Brockman, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, Mabibel Martinez, and Vincent Randazzo
Photos by Scott Suchman