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How do you convey the trouble with decadence to theater audiences already alarmed by Mar-a-Lago parties and Fyre Festival documentaries? That’s a question two theaters are grappling with—with modest success—in shows about the perils of excess and the bygone days of the English upper class.
Both Vanity Fair, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, and Third Rail Projects’ Confection, at the Folger, have their delectably frothy moments, but the central themes are challenging to convey in 2019, when audiences are less sympathetic to the one percent and those struggling to get there, including the decadent diners of Confection and Becky Sharp, British literature’s most maligned social climber. One play is a visual feast; the other is a case study in minimalist staging gone awry.
Kate Hamill’s Vanity Fair debuted two years ago at the Pearl Theatre, one of New York’s minor off-Broadway venues. The stage adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel marked Hamill’s second attempt to recast a classic, and it came on the heels of her hilarious and moving adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. D.C. audiences were among the first outside of New York to sit in awe of what Hamill and her collaborators could do with just a handful of actors, minimal accoutrements, and a Jane Austen novel. Eric Tucker, fresh off directing a long run of Sense and Sensibility at New York’s Bedlam Theatre, also helmed the play’s run at the Folger, with local actress Erin Weaver replacing Hamill in the role of Marianne Dashwood.
Hamill also played her first Becky Sharp. Watching the Pearl’s production in April 2017 was like watching super-talented New Yorkers put on a show with the resources of a college drama department. Minimal costume changes were performed in plain sight, and the onstage narrator frequently broke the fourth wall in scripted attempts to chastise audience members seated on risers.
It’s quite a leap to see a bigger budget version of the same play at the Lansburgh, which has been converted into a theater-within-a-theater. It’s a smart idea by West Coast director Jessica Stone, but the metatheatricality doesn’t always hold up, such as when the moral condemnations of narrator Dan Hiatt are addressed broadly to the entire audience instead of as precise comedic bits singling out unlucky theatergoers, or when, on multiple occasions, he makes derogatory comments about the shabby “best we can afford” costumes.
As will be obvious to anyone who admires these Regency gowns and military uniforms, Shakespeare Theatre Company can afford the very nice costumes.
The original scrappy aesthetic, meant to match not only the Pearl Theatre’s black box space and limited resources but the scrappiness of orphan Becky Sharp, has been stripped away. And what’s left—which is a lot, since the source novel is around 700 pages—doesn’t entirely work in an adaptation that was problematic from the start.
Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero is the full title of Thackeray’s 1848 novel, and that clause after the colon is key. Readers were not supposed to root for Becky, the orphan who schemes and dreams her way to the English upper classes, only to be brought low again by her husband’s gambling, her shopping habits, bad luck, and a seedy marquis looking for sex.
Instagram influencers seem to get away with so much worse.
It’s easier to adapt a non-judgemental version of the novel for film, like the 2004 Mira Nair extravaganza, in which Reese Witherspoon rides an elephant, or last year’s seven-part ITV adaptation. But Hamill’s Vanity Fair keeps intact many trappings of Thackeray’s cautionary tale, and asks a 21st century audience to concede Becky Sharp has made poor 19th century life choices. By contrast, Hamill’s adaptations of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Little Women all feature heroines authors and audiences are rooting for.
Complicated baggage aside, there are still reasons to recommend Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Vanity Fair. Rebekah Brockman plays the unhero with spunk, although her Act II transition from enterprising orphan to materialistic bitch is tough to swallow. Stone cast almost entirely West Coast actors in this production. Most are fine, but it would have been lovely to see a D.C. regular like Bobby Smith, Thomas Adrian Simpson, or Harry Winter bring more panache to the narrator’s role. The lone local in the show does the District proud, however. Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan entertains in a supporting role that requires her to play a rogue Redcoat soldier, a puppeteer preacher, and other characters of varying genders.
450 7th St. NW. $49–$125. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.
Importing performers makes much more sense at the Folger Shakespeare Library, which commissioned one of New York’s top immersive theater troupes to create the first-ever production set in the library’s opulent reading rooms rather than the actual theater. Confection is a highminded treat. Arrive early and enjoy a drink while checking out First Chefs, the exhibition of early modern cookbooks and other ephemera that served as source material.
The star of the show is actually the space, which creates an inherent cognitive dissonance. Viewers are asked to contemplate the horrors of the slave trade and the English class system while marveling at North America’s largest collection of Shakespearean books and beautifully dressed performers.
Back in the Bard’s day, they remind us, the wealthy enjoyed ostentatious feasts while some commoners went hungry. Imagine that.
Confection works best when the performers function as timeless eye candy, rather than as early modern moralists. In the opening sequence, a trio of actors dance on a long banquet table in the central reading room, alternately lifting each other and feeding each other rice paper “torn” from pages of books they hold. It’s a gorgeously ethereal scene, and more follow, punctuated by moments when the dialogue, however well delivered, is horribly banal. Each 50-person audience is split up into three groups and ushered into smaller spaces. There’s a particularly odd situation in the tiny card catalog room where Elizabeth Carena goes on an anthropological ramble about how societies discover their values, and then distributes jelly beans via a game called “Keep or Share.” (My date and I kept, everyone else shared. Theater critics are hungry misers.)
Words and food are mashed up best in a sequence where Carena, standing once again on a table in the main reading room, delivers a monologue that consists entirely of edible animals and verbs for serving them—“barb that lobster,” “wing that partridge.” Less satisfying: Carena pondering aloud “When does a cow become beef? When does a pig become ham?” and then rolling a fellow actor—who throughout the show is portrayed as a sugar-hauling slave—onto a serving dish.
The final scene finds all 50 theatergoers seated at the long table after a courtly ritual, and presented with a sweet morsel from local pâtissiers to enjoy while a baroque arrangement of “Sugar, Sugar” plays from hidden speakers. It’s a moment to savor, and to convince theatergoers they should tour the Folger’s reading rooms soon, without immersive theater actors as guides.
201 East Capitol St. SE. $60. (202) 544-7077. folger.edu.