Lights come up on Mr. Bounderby at backstage center, enjoying his warm, extravagant dinner for one. His poor, factory employee, Stephen Blackpool, cautiously approaches, inquiring about a law that would allow him to better improve his unfortunate domestic challenges. Well aware of Stephen’s economic situation, Bounderby simply chuckles, and responds:
“There is a law, but it isn’t for you.”
Charles Dickens is known for embracing spheres of duality within his society, and his classic story depicting the world of the “haves” and “have nots” in the industrial revolution takes stunning life in Lookingglass’ adaptation.
Lookingglass Theatre presents HARD TIMES
Adapted and directed by Lookingglass Theater Artistic Director Heidi Stillman, Hard Times originally premiered at Lookingglass 15 years ago, and returns to launch the company’s 30th season.
The story takes place in Coketown, where the industrial revolution is in full swing, and the smoky grime of the factories fills the streets. As with all Dickens classics, every character shares their troubles. Young Sissy Jupe (Audrey Anderson) feels out-of-place outside of her father’s circus, Louisa Gradgrind (Cordelia Dewdney) finds little enjoyment in the expected lifestyle her father has laid out for her (Cordelia Dewdney), and the poor Stephen Blackpool (David Caitlin) seeks some refuge from his inescapable economic and domestic situation.
However, as with all Dickens novels, there exists many contrasting worlds within the city. There is happiness versus unhappiness, wealthy versus poor, and the high class educated versus the working class. Lookingglass, in association with the Actors Gymnasium, brings that to a whole new level through the use of circus acts – creating a world of fantasy and wonder that rests on top of the industrial.
Helmed by Stillman, the design team transforms the concept of layering worlds into a reality.
Scenic Designer Daniel Ostling embraces the theme of the industrial revolution in his creations with an iron structure that breaks and moves about the stage, creating each of the locations in the story in an abstract fashion. The addition of a single piece of furniture – like an armchair, could transform a section of the stage into the wealthy Mr. Bounderby’s living room, and a clothes-line and small bed helps create Stephen Blackpool’s small one-bedroom apartment.
Ostling’s set has two levels, and Stillman creatively utilizes this feature to showcase the various spheres of Coketown. One particularly striking example is when the factory and school split the space, with the factory workers taking the top level, and the school children on the bottom. Sound Designer Andre Pluess fills the space with a beating sound, creating a unified rhythm to which all of the actors move abstractly. The students move around with their books, and the factory workers move as if working a machine.
Both parties come from different worlds, and may never interact, but they are still connected through their movement. Stillman showcases how these parallel spheres still share their similarities, and creates a striking image in the process.
Mesmerizing Circus Performances
Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi’s circus choreography is stunning, particularly the use of rope dancing and silks. Audrey Anderson fills the role as the primary aerial mover, both as Sissy Jupe and a member of the ensemble. Her abilities leave the audience sighing in awe, as do those of Raphael Cruz as a gymnast in the role of Le Papillon.
Stillman and Hernandez-Distasi utilize the choreography not only to represent the circus acts, but also to add life to moments of fantasy and imagination. When Louisa for example is watching a fire burn in her fireplace, the audience sees Anderson dance in the air behind her. Lighting Designer Brian Sidney Bembridge fills the stage with deep red lighting, and when combined with the use of red silks for Anderson’s routine, the stage picture is absolutely gorgeous.
Lookingglass’ approach to this abstract form of storytelling requires actors to play multiple roles, and demonstrate abilities not only in the dramatic form, but also circus performing. The ensemble rises to that challenge, and works together to tell a difficult but exciting story.
Amy J. Carle and Lookingglass Theatre Artistic Associate Troy West as Mrs. Sparsit and Mr. Bounderby create a hilarious dynamic. Their spot-on comedic timing and clear stage chemistry make for some fun moments to watch unfold, particularly in the midst of other, more gloomy storylines.
Cordelia Dewdney as Louisa demonstrates a lovely stage presence, which invites the audience along for the ride of her painful story arc. Her honest performance helps highlight the harshness of her situation in a society that does not favor women, as well as her selfless devotion to her family.
Lookingglass Ensemble Member David Caitlin’s strong performance adds life to Stephen Blackpool’s harsh story. The moments Caitlin shares with Lookingglass Ensemble Member Louise Lamson’s Rachael are heartbreaking, and the two share a nice stage chemistry that makes the couple one that the audience wants to see succeed.
Visually stunning and emotionally honest, Hard Times is one that should not be missed.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: an excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Through January 14, 2018
Wednesdays at 7:30pm
Thursdays at 2:00pm and 7:30pm
Fridays at 7:30pm
Saturdays at 2:00pm and 7:30pm
Sundays at 2:00pm and 7:30pm
Run Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with intermission.
821 N Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.