“Don’t want to be a lady/
In a Warholian painting/
Just sitting around”
– Prize, “Lady in Waiting”, Surprize Box! (2012)
Yesterday, I was rehearsing for a show that takes an irreverent and satirical look at classic fairy tale tropes. The particular script on which I worked, written by a female playwright, poked fun at the way classic tales reduce princesses to airheaded damsels in distress whose parents died in some incredibly vague manner. As the playwright wasn’t at any of the rehearsals, the (male) director considered this a fine time to go on a rant about – amongst other ignorant things he said – how he found the script “man-hating”. That wasn’t even the dumbest thing he said, but it’s the one that most stands out from the ones I wrote down in the margins of my script. A female playwright merely commenting on the sexist tropes of Antiquity is enough to make an insecure dude shout “Feminazi!”
I wasted no time leaving once rehearsal was over. Fortunately for me, I had an ACT opening night to attend. By pure serendipity, the show I was about to see was also a satire of traditional gender roles in Western society. Vanity Fair is a story about men who think they have to be saviors, but have no qualms about being scoundrels. Actually, the men are secondary: it’s really a story about women who have to put up with all these idiot men who are willing victims to their own vices – war, greed, their own libidos. So, when one woman proves she can play the game just as well as any dude, why is she scorned instead of celebrated?
Based on William Thackeray’s 19th century novel, playwright Kate Hamill has taken the book’s puppet play framing device (which is occasionally made literal in this production) and adapted it as a story put on by a performing troupe in the 1800s. I wonder if either Thackeray or Hamill were giving a nod to Shakespeare’s inexplicable framing device for The Taming of the Shrew (itself notorious for its gender politics)? The result is a Matryoshka doll production of not only a play-within-a-play, but a full stage-upon-a-stage, beautifully designed by Alexander Dodge. Hamill says she’s “interested in reclaiming the classics with a female gaze.” That’s the interesting part; it’s the part of adapting an 800-page tome where she stumbles.
To the story: Rebecca “Becky” Sharp and best friend Amelia Sedley leave Miss Pinkerton’s Academy with different results. The refined Amelia will return to her rich father’s home before presumably being married off. The unapologetic Becky – who shares some of her favorite obscenities with Miss Pinkerton before leaving – is merely stopping off at the Sedley home before taking on her new role as a governess for the Crawley family. At least, that’s the plan.
Life intervenes in a number of unexpected ways. The ladies catch the eyes two men, but the courtships are cut short with Napoleon’s armies advancing across Europe. These events are intertwined with circumstances of fortunes won and lost, property earned and given away, and favors repaid at incredibly high cost. All of this is told with the assistance of a “Manager”, whose presence owes as much to PT Barnum as it does the narrators from Into the Woods and Pippin – complete with said narrator taking on several on-stage personae.
The Manager (Dan Hiatt) will frequently break the fourth wall, intentionally drawing attention to the artificiality of the production to chide the audience for passing judgement. “How will your grandchildren observe you?”, he asks in the play’s opening musical number. During a questionable transaction in an outdoor market scene, he turns to us asks how much uncompensated labor went into making the clothes on our back. “What do you want?”, he asks one of his players at the start. “Everything,” she responds. “And what will you do to get it?”, he asks back. When a play begins with Becky declaring “There are no morals here,” it’s meant to make it hard to tell whom to root for.
Mind you, it’s still pretty easy to root for Becky (played with perfect “I only give enough of a shit” aplomb by Rebeckah Brockman) and Amelia (Marlite Martinez). Women didn’t have a great many options in life in the Victorian era. Becky refuses most of them as Amelia embraces most them, proving that neither is “right” in any myopic sense. The two are, above all else, survivors. Fate sends them down diverging paths that somehow intersect, but it’s their shared refusal to give up and die that makes them appealing. Becky’s refusal may be due to having rotten luck since birth and Amelia’s from an almost naïve optimism, but they survive. We cheer them, mourn with them, and laugh with them.
And that’s where Hamill’s script trips up. Both the script and Jessica Stone’s excellent direction find the right tones for the comedic and dramatic scenes alike, but not for when they occur at the same time. There’s a scene near the beginning of Act II where Becky and Amelia are left alone after their lives have been upended by the war. They vent their frustrations on one another in the manner of a goofy fight scene, complete with “old-timey” fisticuff stances and slapstick music. Given the drama of what preceded the fight, it results in a tonal whiplash that may have actually given me neck pain. Add to this the fact that such whiplashes happen often because Hamill and Stone are sprinting through the novel’s aforementioned 800 pages. It works when scenes occur side-by-side, but not so much when scenelettes feature just two or three lines.
Nevertheless, the script’s biggest strength is keeping Becky and Amelia front and center to the story, just as Stone knows how to play her cast seven-person like a well-conducted orchestra. I’m still getting used to a beardless Adam Magill, though this show was mercifully free of hecklers complaining about his age. Magill is a delight here as Becky’s husband Rawdon and as Amelia’s bowlegged father. He introduces the former with a cocksure narcissism that gives way to vulnerability, and plays the latter as an amusing old man whose heart is easily broken when he loses his fortune. Also a delight is Alyssa Keegan, whose primary role is that of Amelia’s husband George. George’s braggadocio makes him obnoxious, but he shrinks into a violet in the presence of his rich father (Vincent Radazzo). Keegan’s portrayal illuminates all of George’s sides admirably and I couldn’t help but wish the character had tried to make some genuine connection with his wife before heading off to war.
I briefly mentioned Alexander Dodge’s set above, but that hardly does it justice. In addition to the stone-carved outer set and balconies, scene transitions are humorously presented by large set pieces that rise and fall, as well as old fashioned painted-on backgrounds that the actors crank on pulley wheels. Some pieces (sofas and the like) are detailed enough to suggest a high budget, while others (faded painting) are distressed enough to make one thing they were second-hand. All of it blends perfectly in Dodge’s design.
Jennifer Moeller’s costumes are also wonderfully detailed. Before the show began, several local actors (not cast in this show, mind you) were in the ACT’s downstairs bar walking about in full Dickens Faire mode. There are points in the play where the costumes are meant to draw attention to themselves – the Manager donning a wig to play Miss Crawley is a fine example – but most of it requires the cast looking as if they’ve stepped out of an Albert Chevallier Taylor painting. Lovely work by Moeller.
Jane Shaw serves as both the sound designer and original composer. Given the opening number, one would be forgiven into thinking that they’d sat down to see a musical without being told in advance. That’s not a knock against Shaw’s fine work (there’s a disclaimer on the theatre doors warning of cannon fire – it isn’t too intense, but the soundscapes are well done), it’s just a bit jarring for that to be the only proper musical number in the entire show. Perhaps if the entire show had been played as a proper musical, it would have made the expeditious passage of time more palatable? David Weiner’s lights are adequate, but sometimes seemed to be playing Catch Up to the fast-moving action on stage. And although I wasn’t feeling the tonal shift of Becky and Amelia’s fight, Cliff Williams at least made it look interesting.
Vanity Fair’s unapologetic feminism was the perfect antidote to my having-just-come-from-a-rehearsal-with-a-sexist-prick. It’s a beautifully lavish production with fine performances and the right contemporary lens to give modern context without being revisionist. Its flaw is that it tries to abbreviate a story of such grand scope that the final result often feels rushed, like a book report finished hours before the start of class. The character development could have used a bit more room to breathe, but that would have made the show at least three hours.
Still, the writing is strong, no matter how rushed it feels. Coupled with equally strong direction and top-notch technical skill, it’s a nice feather in the cap of Pam MacKinnon’s new tenure at the ACT.
Vanity Fair is scheduled to run until the 12th of May at the ACT’s Geary Theater in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with a single 15-min intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.