Directing Dickens to Death | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Directing Dickens to Death 

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Wisdom Bridge Theatre

Mr. Harthouse, one of the villains in Charles Dickens's Hard Times, tried the life of a cavalry officer and found it boring. He also got bored strolling in Jerusalem, yachting around the world, and traveling with an English minister of state. After experiencing so many varieties of boredom, he concluded that "any set of ideas will do just as much good as any other set, and just as much harm as any other set."

That conclusion seems to be the working assumption behind Wisdom Bridge Theatre's adaptation of Hard Times. And sure enough, the result is boring.

The production suffers from an excess of ideas. That may sound preposterous, given that so many plays suffer the opposite, but director Richard E.T. White has introduced those ideas with the apparent belief that one is just as good as another. Consequently the ideas bang against each other, and dissipate the momentum that Dickens so skillfully built into his narrative.

Effective ideas link together, like pieces of a puzzle, to create a larger picture. If you've read this far, for example, it's probably because you detect a point of view emerging and you're curious to see what it will be. If I start to flit from idea to idea, however, with no apparent destination in sight, your mind will start to wander and you'll soon stop reading. Why board a train of thought that isn't going anywhere?

That's how I felt while watching Wisdom Bridge's Hard Times. White's ideas, taken one at a time, are solid and interesting, but they don't always fit together. They're scattered and autonomous, not part of some overarching plan, and that produced a subliminal confusion, one I barely recognized while watching the play.

For example, White did color-blind casting--two of the actors are black. He also decided to have the actors speak in American English instead of adopting English accents. Fine. That tells me that in this production skin color has no significance, and that I'm supposed to grasp the class differences without the help of identifying accents. No problem.

But then, in one scene, Bruce Young--one of the black actors--uses a Southern black dialect to portray a weaver in one of Mr. Bounderby's factories. Apparently the accent is supposed to identify the worker as a simple, uneducated man who must humble himself before his boss. And the allusion to racial prejudice serves as a reminder that the abuses that Dickens depicted are still with us. But the device is jarring and self-conscious. The director is sending up a flare to illuminate his own message, and that distracts the audience from the persuasive power Dickens's narrative has all on its own.

The set has a similar effect. White obviously wanted to avoid a period set, which would distance the injustice, putting it safely back in the 19th century. He also needed a simple playing space so the actors could create an array of locales. But the set, designed by Michael Olich, accomplishes neither. While it does avoid any overt reference to a 19th-century English factory town, the set is so cluttered with 20th-century artifacts that it's neither simple nor timeless. A broad steel ramp dominates one side of the stage, while concrete columns with the steel reinforcing rods exposed fill the other. Several portable electric lights--the kind a car mechanic uses while working under the hood of a car--hang on the set. The lights are not only an overt reference to the 20th century, but when the actors pick them up at times to illuminate their own faces, it seems a highly self-conscious attempt to make Dickens relevant to our own day.

The costumes also blend the old with the new--actors wear contemporary styles that recall old-fashioned ones. One woman, for example, wears high-buttoned shoes and an ice-washed denim dress. And the selection of music is just plain peculiar. Why reggae? Why rock and roll? For that matter, why the old labor standard, "Bread and Roses"--does it really deepen the poignancy of the workers' plight?

Some of the performances seem to lack direction too, as though the actors aren't sure about the style or the tone they should achieve. That problem is complicated by the fact that each actor plays at least four roles. Bruce Young, normally an actor of exceptional power, at times resorted to broad mugging to give the three main characters he plays distinct identities. Linda Emond underplayed the character of Louisa Gradgrind, but portrayed an old woman with the gleeful hyperbole often found in Second City comedy. The cast members create some impressive moments, especially Peggy Roeder, who provides some desperately needed laughter with her portrayal of Mrs. Sparsit. But the performances--even the different roles played by the same actor--often don't fit together. They don't seem to be guided by a clear master plan for this play.

Hard Times is about the dehumanizing impact of industrialization. Mr. Gradgrind (Bruce Young) is a schoolmaster who believes the path to knowledge is paved with facts alone. "You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon facts," he intones. "Nothing else will ever be of any service to them." He raises his own children, Tom (Edward Wilkerson Jr.) and Louisa (Emond) on that premise, and while Tom absorbs his father's pragmatism, Louisa resists it. Still, she marries the greedy Mr. Bounderby (Larry Brandenburg) because it will help her beloved brother get ahead in the world, but her unhappiness makes her susceptible to the seductive overtures of Mr. Harthouse (Young). In brief, the people who are devoted to facts come to no good, while the people who reserve a place in their hearts for love, beauty, and intuition prevail.

It's a strong story. Like Nicholas Nickleby (which received a nine-hour stage adaptation), the narrative moves swiftly forward, carried by strong characters and buoyant dialogue.

But Nickleby held my attention for nine consecutive hours; Hard Times, which lasts only a third as long, made me restless and bored.

The reason for this difference, I think, is this: Nickleby was devoted solely to Dickens's narrative. The actors gave very straightforward performances. They didn't shrink from Dickens's melodrama or tone down his eccentric characters--but they never mugged or overacted, either. They remained totally subservient to the author's story.

The cast members of Hard Times, on the other hand, seem divided. They must tell the author's story, but at the same time they must promote the director's hidden agenda. They're expected to inflate the ideas at the expense of the narrative, which unfortunately sometimes squeezes the Dickens out of the play.


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