Kate Hamill created a clever unifying device for her adaptation of the 19th-century satirical novel “Vanity Fair” by William Makepeace Thackeray: a sly and all-knowing “Manager,” based on one of the novel’s characters, who presides over a “fair” in which everyone’s basest, greediest nature is on display.
As played by Dan Hiatt (one of the Bay Area’s greatest comedic talents) in this American Conservatory Theater/Shakespeare Theatre Company (in DC) coproduction, the Manager ropes us in; in fact, we’re downright complicit. “The people of Vanity Fair are very fallible,” he warns — and so too (as he tells us a little too repeatedly) are we, no matter how morally superior we may feel toward anti-heroine Becky Sharp.
Penniless Becky, an orphan whose mother was not just a low-class singer but also (gasp!) French, hires herself out as a governess.
But she aims much higher: to be “respectable,” rich and presented to the King. What will she do to achieve her goals? Whatever is necessary. She’s smart and conniving, a character we love to hate (or, perhaps, sheepishly admire), played here with great glee and spunk by Rebekah Brockman.
Her best friend Amelia is a classic good girl, gullible, a hard character to make theatrically interesting despite Maribel Martinez’ best efforts.
Amelia falls in love with a cad (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, in amusing cross-gender casting), Becky with a feckless gentleman (Adam Magill), whom she betrays in her relentless social climb.
What works in this production, directed by Jessica Stone, is the fun of Becky’s grasping ascent and inevitable descent.
What especially works are Becky’s scenes with a hilariously flatulent Aunt Matilda (Hiatt again). In those scenes, the comedy hits all the right notes.
Sometimes, though, Stone’s concept — to frame the story as a “musick hall” entertainment — falls flat. The slapstick, cartoony characterizations (Ministry of Silly Walks, anyone?), scenes that occasionally play out simultaneously, and even some of the elegantly choreographed physical antics are all too often over-the-top.
What does work is the witty set design (by Alexander Dodge) with its gorgeous moveable painted backdrops, some simple puppetry, interspersed songs that provide a melancholy counterpoint to the wacky proceedings, and the agility with which five actors — Hiatt, Keegan, Magill, Anthony Michael Lopez and Vincent Randazzo — portray multiple characters. (Only Brockman and Martinez have single roles.)
Finally, Hamill seamlessly intersperses some of her own writing with Thackeray’s and makes this fair of the vanities an event that resonates in our avaricious era.
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes May 12
Tickets: $15 to $110
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org