It says something about Kate Hamill’s sensibility that her current stage adaptation of William Thackeray’s sprawling 19th-century satire “Vanity Fair” was partly inspired by bad audience behavior as she watched a production of “Hamlet.”
“A woman and husband were sitting in front of me,” Hamill says, “and the woman kept leaning over and giving the most judgmental spoilers: ‘Just watch. He’s terrible to his mother.’ ” The New York-based actress and playwright spoke by phone from San Diego, where she is working on a historical drama called “The Prostitute Play.”
Hamill laughs — she laughs a lot as she discusses the great works of literature she’s been wrangling onto the stage, from her coast-to-coast hit “Sense and Sensibility” (seen in 2016 at the Folger Theatre) to such new projects as a fresh “Little Women” and a tantalizing something titled “Scrooge for Senate.” But she was fascinated by the notion of distance — that a viewer could think the story taking place onstage was not about now.
“They are, of course, our stories,” says Hamill, who played the wily, social-climbing orphan Becky Sharp in the 2017 off-Broadway premiere of “Vanity Fair.” “They’re cultural touchstones. ‘Vanity Fair’ challenges audiences to think that we are not different from these people.”
Finding modern echoes in the past is drawing Hamill back to her script for “The Prostitute Play,” about political romance and blackmail involving 19th-century courtesan Harriette Wilson. “I wrote it in 2015, and I’m re-rewriting now,” Hamill says. “It has very Stormy Daniels-esque tones.”
Hamill has slightly tweaked her script for the “Vanity Fair” production that starts Tuesday at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, with new director Jessica Stone and a fresh cast of merely seven. (“A gift to actors,” the New York Times declared of the adaptation.) The main figures are the opportunistic, lower-class Becky Sharp (Rebekah Brockman in this new staging, co-produced with San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater) and the high-society Amelia Sedley (Maribel Martinez), with social mores under the microscope.
Q: Why "Vanity Fair"?
A: I was frustrated by the dearth of female narratives, especially narratives with the female gaze. I was auditioning for all kinds of parts where the women did not reflect women I knew in life. They were not funny, or vulgar, or flawed. They were cardboard types to help the male protagonist on his journey. So I’m really interested in creating female characters where I don’t care if they’re likable. I care if we understand them. “Not likable.” The men don’t get those notes. We say Macbeth can murder half the country, but you know who’s really wicked? Lady Macbeth!
Q: Becky Sharp — she appeals to you?
A: That was not the chief appeal. I played Becky, but I did not want to make it just Becky’s story. Most adaptations do. I get it. She’s sort of fun. But it’s interesting that we tend to judge one as the “good” woman and one as the “bad” woman. I set them up in exactly parallel structures, putting them in the same situations over and over — one of them scrabbling up from the bottom, one from privilege. Both run up against the judgments of society. That’s still true of women today. You can never win under the rules society has set up for you. You’re too smart, or not smart enough. Too sexy, or not sexy enough. No one can win.
Q: Sounds like you are going to have fun watching the presidential campaign unfold.
A: I’ve found it very, very frustrating how female politicians are treated, and that, for me, is the connection to Becky Sharp. She is ambitious. It’s interesting to see how people judge her as heartless and sociopathic. I take a radical approach to adaptation. It’s not copy-and-paste; it’s writing a new play — a collaboration between myself and an author who’s dead. So it’s a take. I came close to working in politics — journalism or politics — and the personal is political in this play. It’s about women trying to get what they want in a society that judges them.
Q: The New York Times review of the show claimed that Becky Sharp is not a feminist hero. Do you agree?
A: Working on adaptations like “The Odyssey” or “Vanity Fair” — they were written before the theory — so they’re proto-feminists. Becky is Becky-ist. When you come from crushing poverty, there is no nobility in poverty. There is desperation never to be there again. Becky is not lifting all women.
Q: What do you like about the voice of the book?
A: Most of the dialogue is mine; I’d say 90 percent. What I loved is the clear-eyed view of hypocrisy, how Thackeray can’t help being fond of these characters even as he makes fun of their hypocrisy. Thackeray uses a puppet master — which I turned into a manager of a theater troupe — that puts on this play for us. He pushes it to more of an extreme, because it’s a satire. I wanted them to be more honest, human women. But his shaping of Becky and Amelia is funny and beautiful. That shines through, even as he’s taking this sharp knife to society. Taking a real hard look at idols and institutions is something I was really interested in. And it’s funny. There’s a scene in the play about a woman giving a philosophical talk about society and class, and she’s farting the whole time. I made it up, but I was inspired by Thackeray’s mix of high and low. Nothing’s too sacred to re-examine. You could say I’m scribbling in crayon on the altar, but I think that’s what Thackeray was doing.
Q: Is there an irony in your finding good material for actresses in 19th-century works?
A: I also write new plays, and I believe in new stories. But we teach these things in our schools. Why not try to reclaim them for everyone? Every person who’s not a white man watches “Hamlet” and puts themselves in Hamlet’s shoes. So now I’m trying to flip the script a bit and reclaim those things. My dad told me “The Odyssey” as bedtime stories, and as a little kid, I was not sitting there going, “How could I be Odysseus? I’m a girl.” It’s the same discussion as making things inclusive, casting-wise. These stories still have power, but we have to make sure everyone has ownership.
Q: What's the last thing you'd expect to find yourself in onstage?
A: If you say you’re never going to do something, it inevitably happens to you within the next couple years. I loathe Ayn Rand, so it would be fascinating to be in some Ayn Rand piece, because it would be hard. As an actor, I try to pick stuff I’m really interested in. Otherwise, I think the audience could read it on me.
The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. 202-547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.
Dates: Tuesday-March 31.