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STAGE REVIEW : ‘Hard Times’ a Good Time at SCR

In his “Hard Times,” Charles Dickens assailed those teachers who wanted to cram children’s heads with facts at the expense of the imagination. So it’s entirely fitting that the staging of this 1854 novel, now at South Coast Repertory’s Second Stage in Costa Mesa, is a triumph of the imagination.

Adapter Stephen Jeffreys spurned the scenic detail and enormous casts of the Dickens movies. Instead, he relied on our ability to imagine--that five actors were really 19 wonderfully varied characters, that an almost bare stage was really a grimy armpit of the Industrial Revolution, that these oppressed and depressed people might break into song at crucial moments.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 22, 1989 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 22, 1989 Orange County Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 11 Column 1 National Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Because of a production error, a line was dropped from Don Shirley’s review in Monday’s Calendar of “Hard Times” at South Coast Repertory. The review should have read: "(Actress Anni) Long’s creation of Mrs. Sparsit was abetted by a pretentious headdress and a mask with a fiercely pointed nose.”

In the story, the schoolmaster Gradgrind instructs his pupils to reject art that isn’t absolutely realistic. Defying Gradgrind’s advice, Jeffreys and his precursors, the people who put together the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Nicholas Nickleby,” not only celebrated the imagination, but they also celebrated the stage as one of the best places to exercise that imagination.

At South Coast, actors and audience alike get an invigorating workout.

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True, the audience must sit for 3 1/2 hours, stirring only during two intermissions. (The show begins an hour earlier than most Second Stage productions.) But that’s not as long as the installments of “Nicholas,” and the story moves swiftly. There’s a slight sag during the second act, but--as in “Nicholas"--the material is so rich that any momentary restlessness soon dissipates.

Furthermore, the audience’s role is not just to absorb everything but also to make the connections between “Hard Times” and our times. Jeffreys’ script is more insistent about this than was “Nicholas”; in a closing chorale, he directly challenges us to make those connections.

Yet director Robert W. Goldsby hasn’t inserted contemporary references: to trickle-down economics, for example, or to those parents who parade fact-filled flash cards in front of their babies. He lets the audience draw its own conclusions.

The actors’ workout here calls for immense physical and technical skills, in addition to the imaginative powers required of the audience, and these actors demonstrate Olympian prowess.

The two women in the main cast of five (two extras fill out peripheral parts) play five roles each. Anni Long makes the most spectacular leaps between characters. She plays Sissy Jupe, an independent-minded girl; whining Mrs. Gradgrind (who wishes she never had a family--then they would know what it’s like to do without her); a couple of weavers at the Coketown mill, and snippy Mrs. Sparsit, who wants us to understand how low she has stooped in order to become an industrialist’s housekeeper.

Long’s creation of Mrs. Sparsit is abetted by a pretentious headdress and a mask with a fiercely pointed nose--the handiwork of set and costume designer Ariel. This and other masks help camouflage the actors as they switch roles and also sum up characters in visual shorthand. And the use of a mask on Gradgrind leads to an illuminating moment, late in the second act, when the mask comes off to reveal the man under the cartoon.

Jarion Monroe plays Gradgrind as well as the seducer of Gradgrind’s daughter--perhaps the evening’s most startling transformation. He fills out the role of the seducer, which Jeffreys may have been trimmed a bit too much, so that we understand this fellow fully. In the pivotal role of Gradgrind’s daughter, Devon Raymond creates some of the play’s most tragic images--yet also finds the resources to play four smaller roles with finesse.

Robert Sicular astonishes with his brief bits as Bitzer, the hilarious young model student with an exotic blond haircut, as much as with his more substantial roles as bigwig Josiah Bounderby and as Gradgrind’s foolish son Tom. And Art Koustik, though stuck with two almost equally sympathetic characters, carefully delineates the differences.

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Ariel designed a floor and created a rear platform and backdrop, artfully lit by Peter Maradudin, that suggest the economic and the pedagogical imperatives of the era. Robert MacDougall’s score and sound track constantly supports the action and occasionally ascends to the surface of the show. Singing isn’t the cast’s strong suit, but it’s a problem only in the closing chorale; earlier, the raw and sometimes faltering voices make their own point about these people’s lives.

At 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., weekends at 2 p.m., through April 16. Tickets: $20-$25; (714) 957-4033.


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