A non-traditional Vanity Fair bows at ACT

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The cast of Kate Hamill’s Vanity Fair continuing at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater through May 12. Below: The cast includes (from left) Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan as Lesser Pitt, Vincent Randazzo as Sir Pitt and Anthony Michael Lopez as Rose Crawley. Photos by Scott Suchman

For their adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair, writer Kate Hamill and director Jessica Stone do a little bit of cheating. Hamill has decided to liven things up by making this a play about a play about a novel. We are in American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, but on stage, we’re told that our actual location is “Strand Musick Hall,” and the opening number tells us that seven actors are going to play all the parts for the next 2 1/2 hours. So we have a play about a play and actors playing actors playing multiple characters from Thackeray’s sprawling novel about two women – one impoverished and aggressive, the other well-heeled and passive – whose friendship begins in private school and extends through abundant highs, lows, triumphs and humiliations.

This approach is both enjoyably energetic and problematic. The theater-within-theater conceit works well to keep the tone light and fresh and funny, especially when the actors are allowed to play across gender or utilize masks or stick puppets to fill out the parade of characters. The attempt to incorporate musical numbers, featuring original pre-recorded music by Jane Shaw, should serve to bump up the energy and underscore the theatrical nature of the storytelling. But because no one in the otherwise wonderful cast seems comfortable with the singing, the musical numbers become something of a burden.

The other problem with the hyper-theatrical storytelling is that when the story or a particular character’s plight turns serious, or just when we might be fully suspending our disbelief and becoming fully immersed in the plot, the theatrical conceit (or a song) jolts us right back to being more of an observer and less of an emotional participant. That’s a shame because the performances grow and deepen in ways that make us want to care more and observe less.

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In those moments, Vanity Fair is utterly captivating, and the same can be said for some of the lighter moments when the caricatures are spot on. The redoubtable Dan Hiatt, long one of the Bay Area’s most reliably wonderful actors, is the de facto narrator (or Manager, as he’s called) to keep things rolling and add spicy commentary here and there. That’s great, but Hiatt is even better when he gets to play extremes, like the dowager Aunt Matilda, whose ill health and vast fortune make her quite appealing to potential heirs, and the creepy, well-connected Lord Steyne (well named), whose charity comes with much too high a price.

Most of the actors play multiple roles save for the two main characters, Becky Sharp, played sharply (naturally) by Rebekah Brockman, and Amelia Sedley, played with warmth by Maribel Martinez. These two lifelong friends/combatants are subjected to the strain of being an ambitious orphan (Becky) and the impermanence of being a wealthy milquetoast. As Becky maneuvers her way up the social ladder (largely thanks to two characters played by the enormously likable Vincent Randazzo), Amelia finds her station sinking. But what is more defining – character or situation? It’s a question that gets asked a lot (there’s a lot of plot), and the answer may be different for each woman. Brockman and Martinez are superb, and the play is at its best when the two of them are together, whether their characters are sharing sisterly affection for hurling deeply felt insults at one another.

Of the supporting players, Anthony Michael Lopez makes the strongest impression as Dobbin, the soldier who has long pined for Amelia, even during her marriage to the dastardly George (a wily Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) whose faults elude her. Lopez makes Dobbin’s affection so potent it threatens to become the dominant romance, when that title belongs to Becky and her own soldier, Rawdon (a dashing, conniving Adam Magill), who understands what Becky must do to keep their tenuous lifestyle going…until he doesn’t.

Through the vicissitudes of 19th-century life in the court of King George, battles against Napoleon and tumultuous relationships with unreliable men, Becky and Amelia make their choices and suffer (mostly) the consequences, even as they keep on, as they say, keeping on. They manage to do what they can to live the lives they have long imagined for themselves, whether of the nasty or virtuous variety. When this production slows down long enough, we begin to feel the weight of that perseverance, but then we move quickly on, leaving this boisterous Vanity Fair to revel in its appealing surfaces rather than in something more substantive.

Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray continues through May 12 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$130 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

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