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Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Vanity Fair
American Conservatory Theater
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also Patrick's reviews of The Importance of Being Earnest and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, Vincent Randazzo,
and Anthony Michael Lopez

Photo by Scott Suchman
The stage has seen some marvelous adaptations of novels (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, War Horse, Nicholas Nickleby, Venus in Fur, and—apparently, though I haven't seen it (but it is mostly well-reviewed and is killing it at the box office)—To Kill a Mockingbird. Yet, despite these (and a few other) notable successes, a quick look at Wikipedia's pages on "plays adapted from novels" will show you dozens that have slipped into obscurity. This should say something about the difficulties inherent in bringing the rich—but often internally perceived—world of the novel to the stage. When done well (see the examples above), a stage adaptation can bring new life to a story, helping an audience to plumb its depths more completely and effectively. For we who sit in the dark, having a director and a troupe of actors bring their own interpretation of the story and its characters can reveal aspects of the novel we might have missed reading it alone. But when an adapted novel misfires as a play, it can drown in its own turgidity.

Vanity Fair, adapted by Kate Hamill from the well-loved novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, currently running at American Conservatory Theater's Geary Theater, trods a middle path between these two options: managing to avoid the abyss but failing to reach the summit.

Vanity Fair tells the story of two girls who meet at Miss Pinkerton's academy for young ladies: Miss Becky Sharp (Rebekah Brockman), a common girl of limited means (but unlimited ambition), and Miss Amelia (Emmy) Sedley (Maribel Martinez), whose father is a successful stockbroker in London. Emmy has long been betrothed to a young man of means, a George Osborne. George is played by Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, who also plays several other roles. In fact, except for Brockman and Martinez, the other five cast members play all the other roles, sometimes with the assistance of puppets—though the use of these is limited, and mostly well done.

Over the course of the two acts, the fortunes of the two women will rise and fall, the men around them will be charming, dishonorable, vain, abusive, courageous, dim, disloyal and generous, and their foibles will be amplified by director Jessica Stone's take on Hamill's (and Thackeray's) text. Thackeray satirized the world of British nobility—a milieu ripe for skewering—framing his novel with a puppet show taking place at a fair, and remarking on the action of the story via a narrator who provides a serio-comic commentary.

And so it is here, with Bay Area veteran Dan Hiatt as the Manager, a tuxedoed fellow who helps establish scenes and offers his own, somewhat anarchic point of view on the proceedings. Early on he asks the questions at the heart of the story: "How can you get what you want?" and "What will you do to get it?" For Becky Sharp, the answers are clearly "everything" and "anything."

Hamill is to be commended for compacting Thackeray's doorstop of a novel (it runs to some 900± pages, depending on the edition) into a mere 2.5 hours across two acts. When Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby was staged, the theatergoing experience stretched across 8.5 hours. But Hamill manages to work in most of the key plot points, although the action does drag a bit, especially in act two. The seven actors are to be commended for their flexibility in portraying 30 different parts. When Hiatt isn't playing the Manager, he dons a wig and gown to become the conniving dowager Miss Matilda Crawley and savors the role as a dog does a fresh cow pie, embracing all her awfulness and calling it beauty. Vincent Randazzo gets some of the richest parts, portraying the dim, dumpy Jos Sedley (Emmy's brother), the privileged (and decidedly un-woke) Mr. Pitt, and snooty Lady Chesterton.

The show is staged within the proscenium of a space marked as the "Strand Musick Hall," and scenic designer Alexander Dodge and costume designer Jennifer Moeller have utilized many simple effects of stagecraft to achieve their ends. Rolling flats reveal new backdrops with the turn of a crank, framed art stands in to signify location, and built-in boxes (similar to those already present in the Geary Theater) serve as locations for the high-born to cast their judgments on those beneath—both literally and in terms of England's strict 19th century class structure.

Yet for all these excellent efforts, Vanity Fair never truly gains any traction. The silliness is expertly played, but it often seems to work counter to the dramatic elements of the story. Yes, Thackeray was mocking the conventions and prejudices of his time, but when everyone on stage is mugging it up, it serves mainly to dull the edge of his satirical knife.

Vanity Fair, through May 12, 2019, at ACT's Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8:00pm, and Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets (ranging from $15-$110) and more information are available at