Returning to the stage for its 30th Anniversary Season, Lookingglass Theatre’s Hard Times is as relevant now as it was back when Charles Dickens first wrote his orignal tale. His industrial revolution indictment is layered against the light cast from a visiting traveling circus, with all its majestic pleasures and merriment found within its varied tents. This balance of light and dark, tone and shade, where those held in highest esteem are often more nefarious than those at the bottom most rung of the careers’ fateful ladder. Originally adapted back in 2001, director, Ensemble Member Heidi Stillman in association with The Actors Gymnasium, remounts this show to dizzying heights. The impressive and imaginative circus choreography from Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi is certainly the show’s high-point, and reminiscent of my favorite Lookingglass show, Lookingglass Alice, although this play is certainly more grounded in reality than that imaginative tale. Hard Times’ pace is much more of a slow simmer, savoring all of the delicious details in its story as it cautiously unfolds.
Chronicling life among the rich and the poor of Coketown, England, class and economic disparity are just as timely now as they were then. The carefully crafted ensemble piece offers narratives into the wide array of the characters lives, instead of focusing on just one or two primary character. While women in Dickens’ day were considered ancillary by society, they drive the subtleties of the narrative here. The cast includes Louisa (Cordelia Dewdney) the beautiful and intelligent daughter of hard-nosed educator (Raymond Fox) quickly married off to the much older Trump-ian, Industrial Baron (Troy West). Helping Louisa adjust to this unsatisfying life, her friend Sissy (Audrey Anderson) a cast-off from the circus, whose own light is temporarily dimmed as she is pulled from the spotlight of the tightrope, where she clearly excels and relegated to the classroom, where she pointedly doesn’t. If Sissy offers Louisa hope, the other men in her life, brother Tom (JJ Phillips) and suitor, Harthouse (Nathan Hosner) regrettably don’t. Her brother’s a thief and her suitor a cad. The circus is an obvious metaphor here, representing the imaginative and romantic, versus the bleak utilitarianism of capitalism and unsatisfying roles under the thumb of a fierce and unapologetic patriarchy.
The beauty of Hard Times is clearly crafted in the costumes of Mara Blumenfeld. Her colorful Actors Gymnasium circus garments, in their lustrous reds, pinks and yellow are the sunshine, romance and blush of love and life. Juxtaposed against the industrial revolutionary palette of dark grey, charcoal, black, plum and purple. Daniel Ostling’s set design mimics the same, with steel beam boxes and dark wooden desks the ornaments of the oppressors, and colorful scarves and colorful ropes as backdrop accents for the imaginative. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s dramatic lighting also added edge when required, then softness and subtlety for the fleeting romantic nuances as well.
In an age where calculated scientific data is being questioned as “alternative facts”, we may be characters in our own world of Hard Times. Dickens himself would scoff at the recently passed, unprecedented tax cuts for the “haves” at the expense of the “have not’s”. While this play was written utilizing the Industrial Revolution as a backdrop, it is stunning how relevant this tale rings today. Don’t let the title fool you, this Hard Times is beautifully pointed with moments of poetic virtue and somber pathos. If you are looking for an alternative to holiday fare, The Lookingglass Theatre Company productions are always top notch.
Lookingglass Theatre’s Hard Times is now playing through January 14, 2018