Bad girl Becky Sharp has been hanging around since William Thackeray’s first serial installments in 1847 of his sprawling novel “Vanity Fair.” Stage versions were popular in the 19th century. “Becky Sharp” was Hollywood’s first Technicolor film in 1935. Reese Witherspoon played Becky in 2004.
But is she especially for our time?
“Don’t judge me,” the opportunistic antiheroine says figuratively and literally throughout adapter Kate Hamill’s strenuously comic, thoroughly feminist “Vanity Fair,” now at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Becky may be a manipulating liar, but what’s an orphan girl to do when a brutal, hypocritical society stacks the deck against her?
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Becky says in unison with her opposite number, the equally put-upon but innately sweet Amelia Sedley. The options for women are scant, and Rebekah Brockman’s bouncy, puckish Becky pointedly arches an eyebrow at the audience as she cleverly plays the hand she’s dealt.
It’s pure Thackeray, and you have to give Hamill credit for boiling the incident-filled, description-crammed novel down to a focused, playable lark for seven actors. This saucy troupe comes at us in the guise of Victorian music hall performers, which licenses an agreeable razzmatazzy style to the evening’s entertainment.
Yet Thackeray is not Jane Austen, and this fleet “Vanity Fair” is not quite as user-friendly as Hamill’s “Sense and Sensibility,” which whizzed through the Folger Theatre in 2016. Especially in its first act, this society’s wheel of fortune creaks as it turns, with whiskered men in bonnets playing sniffy old women, stick puppets flapping their floppy arms and legs, and elaborate flirting pantomimes at dinner underlining what a calculating weasel that sparkling Becky can be.
Are Hamill’s characterizations more grotesque than Thackeray’s? Not possible. Yet the stage is more literal than the page, and there’s a bumptiousness to the vaudeville-grade performances that edges Thackeray’s wit and satire firmly into farce. It takes a while for the hard-working show, a co-production with San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (where the production moves next month), to feel settled with itself.
Interestingly, this big-scale “Vanity Fair” on the STC’s Lansburgh stage feels less frantic than descriptions suggest about the 2017 premiere at Manhattan’s small (and since closed) Pearl Theatre. Director Jessica Stone’s production coolly leans into the footlights and casts a slightly malevolent tone as the troupe ambles onto the stage and promises to show us a seamy reflection of ourselves. The ensemble has brio, from the top-hatted Manager played by Dan Hiatt (who doubles as a flatulent dowager and a predatory squire) to Maribel Martinez as the all-things-good Amelia.
The main characters gradually emerge in high relief, especially the romantic figures of Rawdon — Becky’s eventual husband, played by the handsome, strapping, slightly brooding Adam Magill — and Dobbin, the noble soldier who longs for Amelia even though she wed another. (Anthony Michael Lopez is the very portrait of steadfastness in the part.) Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan cuts a rakish figure as George, Amelia’s short-lived husband, and Vincent Randazzo is an amusing dull blob as Jos, an attractive mark for Becky because he has money.
Becky is the brightest object in this shadow-filled venue, a grand theater showing its age in Alexander Dodge’s design. The enjoyably cocky Brockman practically crows like Peter Pan as Becky defiantly flouts the social codes to — well, to get ahead in society. The word “rescue” becomes a refrain: Is that what the women need? Is that all the men can provide? Hamill sees what Thackeray saw, that Becky can’t wait, and that she’ll get knocked around but rise back to her feet as she plays the muddy game. Even more than Thackeray did, Hamill — who strategically freeze frames both her heroines as their parallel fates play out — likes her.
Vanity Fair, adapted by Kate Hamill. Directed by Jessica Stone. Costumes, Jennifer Moeller; lights, David Weiner; sound design/composer, Jane Shaw; choreography, Connor Gallagher. Through March 31 at the Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. $49-$118. 202-547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.