The audience’s grunt came early.
With all the charges of sexual harassment in the news, there was an extra punch when the rich Mr. Bounderby made clear his lusty intentions in word and deed to Louisa Gradgrind.
She was horrified, and not merely because she’s 30 years his junior.
The bloated boor is an utterly repulsive human being.
Sad to say, in HARD TIMES, old boy eventually gets young girl – after her father Thomas and brother Tom make an arranged marriage. The former believes it will benefit her while the latter will make certain that the union profits him. For how can Mr. Bounderby not take his new brother-in-law under his wealthy wing?
Although arranged marriages aren’t as relevant today in civilized countries as they were in 1854 when Charles Dickens wrote his 350-odd pages novel, there’s plenty of contemporary relevance in his 163-year-old story – and not just because of the sexual harassment issue.
A father abandons his daughter, although she’ll be in denial that he has. Workers are exploited. Love goes unrequited. Adultery occurs. A husband endures a l-o-n-g marriage to a gone-mad wife who could pass for the Beggar Woman in SWEENEY TODD.
It wouldn’t inspire Jerry Herman to make a musical out of it, but it certainly inspired Heidi Stillman to write and put on quite a show. She penned her theatrical adaptation in 2001 for Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company; when she became the troupe’s artistic director last year, she decided to revive and direct it there again this season –unaware of course that soon after the October 4th opening the creepiness of older men hitting on younger girls would be providing headlines on the front pages of Internet sites and newspapers (in that order).
You know Dickens: his books seemingly contain as many characters as pages. So what happens to Mr. Bounderby and Louisa is just one of the many plot threads that Stillman has retained while dropping very few characters; here Thomas has three fewer children, which probably would please the man considering that he’s so tight with a pound.
We’re glad of it, too, for Thomas Gradgrind is a hard taskmaster to his kids – let alone his students. Set designer Dan Ostling’s wrought-iron two-level structure literally allows the teacher to go to the top of the class while the oppressed students are far below.
Gradgrind is especially hard on Sissy, whose logic is not unlike The Pupil in Ionesco’s THE LESSON. Sissy doesn’t suffer as dire a fate as does that student, but Gradgrind does what he can to kill her spirit. That she comes from a circus family makes him think less of her, too.
Here’s guessing that the idea of putting a circus on stage was part of the reason Stillman adapted the work for Lookingglass, which has always been a physically-oriented company. In 2007, my heart was still pounding for minutes after I saw in the troupe’s LOOKINGLASS ALICE (as in “Wonderland”) a man on a ladder leaning back too far and go crashing onto the stage. Ah, but director David Catlin had arranged for a trap door to be opened beforehand so the actor merely endured a fall onto a few mattresses beneath our line of vision.
So there are plenty of circus acrobatics in one solid scene. Actors who are said to achieve what demanding directors want are said to be made to “go through hoops”; here they actually do.
Despite the joy a circus is supposed to bring, Stillman manages to get an ominous feeling in the air. She should; the audience will witness plenty of unhappiness before the two-hour-plus show comes to a close. But Dickens and Stillman have warned us through that title, haven’t they?
Troy West is an extraordinary Mr. Bounderby, who’ll bore you time and time again with his stories of how he rose from nothing to great prominence. And because he once suffered, he thinks nothing of anyone else enduring any pain. How earnest he is when stating “I despise the art of paying compliments.”
West embodies the type of super-supercilious guy we can’t wait to get his humiliating comeuppance, but the one Dickens and Stillman have given him is hardly as earth-shattering as we might have liked. Yes, Oscar Wilde had a point when he wrote “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”
The way Cordelia Dewdney’s Louisa reacts to her arranged marriage brings to mind Arthur Laurents’ dilemma in wondering whether or not to have Maria shoot herself at the end of WEST SIDE STORY. Richard Rodgers advised no: “She’s dead already,” he said. Dewdney conveys this fate through most of the night.
The aforementioned David Catlin is Stephen, the unappreciated worker from whom Bounderby could learn a lot. There’s a moment when Stephen must blow out a candle; the way that Catlin does it implies that he also seems to be extinguishing all hope that he might have had for his life.
One of those hopes is Rachael. Atra Asdou does a remarkable job in creating a woman who is careful with her life and won’t make rash decisions, especially about romance. While Rachael has ever-increasingly deep feelings for Stephen, Asdou lets us see that she knows she’d be in for a tough life if she went with him.
And let’s not forget either Raymond Fox as Gradgrind or Audrey Anderson as Sissy. Fox shows that it’s easier to be duped than admit to being duped. Sissy can’t read, but Anderson shows us that the lass can certainly read between the lines.
Stillman and her dozen performers may have had hard times during rehearsals when putting together such a behemoth. From the superb results you’d never know it.