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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
With lisping speech, Mr. Sleary, the circus owner in Hard Times (electrically portrayed by Richard Thompson), utters Dickens' motto: "Make the betht of uth, not the wurtht." Making the best of this stage adaptation of the Dickens novel, one finds something interesting and imaginative. Sleary also urges that "people mutht be amuthed," and here, for better or for worse, they are.
The quintessential novel of social protest, Hard Times was divided into three books, biblically entitled "Reaping," "Sowing" and "Garnering". It opens a window on life in 19th Century industrial England, filtered through the lens of Dickens' unmistakable philosophy. Written in narrative form, it relies extensively on very theatrical dialogue that practically begs to be staged.
The thrust of Hard Times is an indictment of utilitarianism, as manifested in the economic and educational philosophies of the two major (but certainly not only) villains, Bounderby (Thompson) and Gradgrind (Joel Lefferts). Bounderby is the logical outgrowth of a dehumanized world in which self-interest is the controlling force; Grandgrind is its intellectual backbone, positing a moral view -- and an education system to sustain it -- based on fact (represented by his school), not fancy (represented by the circus). I will gloss over the myriad of other characters by saying simply that they represent the remainder of these two households (which are related) and the people of all classes and persuasions with whom they come in contact.
Stephen Jeffreys has adapted the novel as a series of scenes connected by Dickensian narration. In this version, the narration is spoken by all of the actors, often referring to their own characters. Much of the dialogue (and narration as well) comes direct from the text, and each of Dickens' books represents an act in the play.
Jeffreys has created an even greater challenge for himself than simply that of adapting the novel to the stage. He seeks to tell the entire story with the nineteen most important characters, carved into a performance utilizing only four actors, each of whom plays 4 or 5 roles. Watching the actors flash between characters (and watching the sets, costumes and props keep pace) is a sight to behold.
Director Lou Jacob has done a masterful job of choreographing this process. Not only are the transitions fluid, they are also usually very clear. The actors execute the difficult metamorphoses (often altering costume, dialect and demeanor simultaneously) skillfully. The design elements support the goings-on well.
David P. Gordon's set wisely does not attempt to portray the detailed venues in Dickens' meticulously set outCoketown. Instead it is spare, raw, open and yet evocative of period and place. Its most notable feature consists of a series of ropes and pulleys that line both sides and the back of the stage. These serve as everything from doors and windows to trees to a circus tent, and are also used functionally, to fly furniture and other props onto the set. Costumes (Ilona Somogyi) are period and class perfect and yet easily altered, as required by the special circumstances of this production. Sensitive lighting (Stephen Petrilli) provides a great assist in this lean arrangement as well.
For those inclined to seek the worst in things, the production has some. The features which make it work on one level conspire to make it not work on another; to wit:
The devotion to the original source with its symbollically rich tapestry of character, plot and background details truly makes this a dramatization of Dickens' work, and not merely a play based on it. However, this also detracts from its theatrical success. (There is a reason theater provides certain enjoyment lacking in storytelling, and why novelists frequently make bad playwrights.) While individual scenes are quite good, and some are terrific, a certain loss of dramatic integration prevents this from being as good a play as it could have been.
The already mentioned quick character transformations give the play enough vitality to sustain it over its three hour running time and the intervening use of actors as narrators propel the complex story forward. However, these virtues also hinder the audience from investing completely in the characters. As an example, Joel Leffert's portait of Gradgrind as well as his son Tom is more that of identical twins than a father and son relationship filled with antagonism. Carol Schultz who ably shoulders five of the female parts, stumbles in one of them. As Mrs. Sparsit, the elderly woman who has a complex relationship with Bounderby, she conveys a more youthful character than Dickens intended
In some cases, and on some levels, excellent acting can and does overcome these transformational difficulties. Richard Thompson is a prime example, though even he has some difficulty shifting his vibrant frame into the weariness Dickens expected of Bounderby.
I confess I usually have misgivings about plays (or films) based on books, especially as intricate as this one. Nothwithstanding its faithfulness to the original, a smarter course for an audience member is probably to take in the show on its own terms, and then follow it up by reading the book