“I never blush,” declares the smirking Becky Sharp, the principal character of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Vanity Fair.” Between scholarship, film and even a 2018 Amazon Studios miniseries, the character from William Makepeace Thackeray’s mid-Victorian era novel has been treated as both a plucky heroine and a relentlessly ambitious antiheroine.
This production of “Vanity Fair,” held in the Lansburgh Theatre, features a fresh take on Becky with pointed reminders of the work’s relevance for contemporary audiences.
In interpretive tradition, the play follows Becky Sharp, played by Rebekah Brockman, as she is befriended by sweet, wealthy Amelia Sedley, portrayed by Maribel Martinez. Becky’s life is then entwined with the turbulent fortunes and lives of those in Amelia’s social circle and her own aristocratic employers.
The adaptation put on by the Shakespeare Theatre Company deviates from its source material at times, but the heart of the play remains the same. The piece’s opening moments allow those in the ensemble to voice their motivations for the spectacle awaiting the viewers: money, power, love and vanity, to name a few.
Becky, a governess who is motivated rather than dejected by her lack of fortune and social status, wants absolutely everything she can get in the play’s two acts. These acts are poetically divided by the Battle of Waterloo, which brims with death, marriage, affairs and conniving. Becky’s low position, her drive and society’s warped treatment of good and bad are also updated with inescapable contemporary stakes and this adaptation’s alternative context.
Playwright Kate Hamill, a renowned adaptor of female-driven stories, including the 2016 production of “Sense and Sensibility” at the Folger Theatre, enables actors to share the biting social commentary of the lengthy source material. The rapid exchange of dialogue evokes the excess of Victorian theater and the reckless gambling of all sorts that compose each character’s individual rise and fall from grace. As a testament to Hamill’s creative focus, all actors but Brockman and Martinez play dual roles.
Each woman delivers a complex and sympathetic performance of characters who could be written and played as “whore” and “Madonna” types. The young women are not foils to each other, but rather to their context. The male and wealthy female characters have interchangeable roles in the play. The actors swap jewel-toned period costumes on stage and even operate puppets in rapid yet clear succession. The identity changes testify to the play’s broader themes of the tension between imitation and authenticity as characters strive for what they want above all else in life.
Verbal intercuts of dialogue at different positions on the stage were so heavily relied upon that they did more to shorten the play’s 2½ hour run time than emphasize the unity of internal conflicts between characters in distinct situations. Still, through the combined talents of director Jessica Stone and choreographer Connor Gallagher, the play demonstrated musicality even in moments without dialogue.
An early dining room scene in the Sedley family’s London townhome is staged as a farcical dance of social manners. The scene powerfully emphasized the internal character, and by extension absurdities, of each person around the table.
The judgement invited by the exaggerated performativity of these characters is complicated by Hamill’s creation of the manager character, played by Dan Hiatt. From the beginning, the character breaks the fourth wall to challenge audience members through jibes directed toward audience members in their “comfortable seats.”
The direct address to the audience by other characters continued to incorporate the viewers into the play and complicated the motivations of individual characters. Brockman’s knowing line, “I know I’m a nasty woman,” received applause from the audience.
More subtly, Martinez’s Amelia presented a heartfelt speech from the stage: “I am trying to be good; I know you think I’m stupid.” Her love for the undeserving George Osborne, played by Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, and obliviousness to the machinations and even emotions of those around her reflect the tragedy and comedy of all our emotions.
So far as the manager wonders aloud what future generations might think of the audience’s actions and lives if they were staged, the production succeeds in its aim of directly connecting the work on the stage to its 21st-century audience.
Perhaps indulging in this fresh adaptation of a literary classic by the Shakespeare Theatre Company does not mean vanity. At the very least, the play itself will not let a guest to the fair forget how the situations playing across the stage, despite the context, are not so different from one’s own.