Theater: Hard Times for big theories

To paraphrase Robert Wuhl as the wacky minor-league coach in the fabulous baseball movie Bull Durham (he was actually talking about working at Sears):  Theories suck, man. Sell Lady Kenmores.

At least, that’s my theory after a weekend of theatergoing that included Candide at Portland Opera and Stephen Jeffreys’ adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times at CoHo Theatre. Theories? Just shut up and hit the ball.

Twedt (left), Cettina, deChatelet. Photo: Gary Norman

You can’t walk around the art world, let alone the culture at large, without bumping into a theory or twelve. Essential to science, where they’re part of a continuing process of discovery, they tend to harden into dogma in the cultural, political and religious realms. In art circles people sometimes forget that theories work best when they explain what’s happening in art, not when they try to drive how it’s being made. And when applied rigorously to something as unpredictable and emotional as human beings, theories can create havoc. Ask B.F. Skinner’s kids. Ask Dickens and Voltaire.

Except that both are adapted from classics, these two plays don’t seem to have a lot in common. Hard Times, published in 1854 and adapted by Jeffreys in 1982, was a response to the pressures of conformity that came along with the Industrial Revolution. Candide is the legendarily troublesome 1956 Broadway-musical adaptation of Voltaire’s satiric 1759 novella, with glorious music by Leonard Bernstein and a book that seems forever stuck betwixt and between. Candide, closer in spirit to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels than to anything by Dickens, is a continent-hopping picaresque. Hard Times is also sweeping, but far more focused and coherent in its storytelling.

Under the skin, though, Hard Times and Candide are blood brothers. Each is a sharp rebuke in fictional form of a social theory that seems to map out the betterment of society but in fact can be cruelly detrimental to the people living in it.

Amid war, famine, slavery and even cannibalism, Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss posits his fatuous theory derived from the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz that this is “the best of all possible worlds.”

In Hard Times, Dickens tests and finds wanting the idea of Utilitarianism as developed by Jeremy Bentham and others to meet the challenges of the Industrial Revolution. In the novel, the idea is pushed in a dreary Victorian manufacturing city by the equally dreary “facts, facts, facts” of schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind.

The idea that grand ideas are a pox upon the people is easy enough to sympathize with in a world bedeviled by everything from social-Darwinist economic theories to virulently clashing religious ideologies. Theories might be beautiful, Voltaire and Dickens argue, but unless they hold at least some semblance of connection to reality they’re worse than nothing at all. Even with the best of intentions (see: Russia, 1917) they can have disastrous results.

So the pox-on-all-theories theory makes a bracing argument. Can it also make good entertainment? I think so. But first you have to find the show. No big problem for Candide: Keller Auditorium’s 3,000 seats were mostly filled for opening night. (You can read Brett Campbell’s review for ArtsWatch here and James McQuillen’s for The Oregonian here.)

The following night a mere 22 people showed up at the 99-seat CoHo for Hard Times. This production – presented by CoHo and deManiak Productions, an offshoot of the late Salem Rep ­– is getting lost in the shuffle. That’s a shame, because it’s a good, smart, funny, and fittingly sentimental show. (Yes, sentimental, and rightly so: Dickens was a practical sentimentalist, and to deplore his sentimentality is to deny a vital part of his genius.)

DeChatelet (left), Janoviak. Photo: Gary Norman

DeChatelet (left), Janoviak. Photo: Gary Norman

Hard Times isn’t one of Dickens’ biggest hits, but it’s a rip-roaring page-turner in that inimitable Dickens style, and it’s swift: Unless you count A Christmas Carol, which is really more a short story, Hard Times is Dickens’ shortest novel by a long shot. Jeffreys’ stage adaptation keeps the many-charactered sweep of the thing but brings it down to a stage-smart four performers, each taking on a multiplicity of roles.

Part of the fun is following the swift dexterity of the actors as they shift from character to character, often with the merest shift of the body or inflection of voice. Actors Camille Cettina, Ted deChatelet, David Janoviak and McKenna Twedt move in and out of 22 roles, without a bit of confusion: at any given moment, you always know who they are. A few quick and simple costume changes help (Alethia Moore-Delmonico did the period designs) but mainly the actors do it on their own, in a sort of old-fashioned sleight-of-hand that’s like Greater Tuna for grown-ups.

Hard Times is the tale of Gradgrind, the earnest educator; his daughter Louisa, who is loving and obedient even though she hates his insistence on rooting out all fancy and sticking to facts; Cissy Jupe, the circus girl who is taken in by the Gradgrinds but can never quite adjust to Gradgrind’s strict ways; and the perils that Gradgrind’s  theoretical fervor brings to all of them as they try to deal with the challenges of the actual world. The falling-out is mighty: Louisa is forced into marriage to the despotic “self-made man” Josiah Bounderby. Her weak-willed brother Tom gambols and gambles his fortunes away. The honest workman Stephen Blackpool’s life is destroyed. Along the way we meet such typically eccentric Dickens characters as the lisping horse trainer Mr. Sleary, meddlesome Mrs. Sparsit, the heartless and scurrilous James Harthouse, the ambitious toady Bitzer, mysterious Mrs. Pegler, and Mary Stokes, the union rabblerouser who stokes the workers to rise up against their capitalist oppressors.

The production, directed by Michael Gerber, is a little slow out of the gate but quickly picks up steam, and Sharath Patel’s vivid sound design adds a constant undercurrent of the hissing and mechanical clanking of the factories of Coketown. Alan Schwanke’s simple rolling set is like a movable wall of bricks: tough, durable and forbidding, but also efficiently functional.

DeChatelet takes on most of the big blowsy showoff roles, and revels in them, figuratively twirling his mustache in some, preening with good will in others, and exuding a robust sense of fun in all of them, from the fatuous Bounderby to the sentimental Sleary and the calculating Harthouse. Twedt anchors the action as an anxious but resolute Louisa, and Cettina, as Richard Wattenberg notes in his review for The Oregonian, eagerly exercises the comic possibilities of characters ranging from Cissy Jupe to the sweet and sensible Rachael, Stephen Blackpool’s would-be lover.

We often think of Dickens’ characters as caricatures, but this cast reminds us that although they might be types, they’re individuals as well. In that sense Janoviak’s major characters may be key: they change, and he subtly suggests some major shifts. Dissolute Tom spins slowly but surely out of control. Blackpool, the good worker, discovers to his horror that not taking sides can be as damaging as giving in blindly to a cause. (You can call this Dickens’ anti-anti-theory theory: he doesn’t like where Utilitarianism can lead, but inaction in the face of clear social evils is just as damaging.)

And as pedantic schoolmaster Gradgrind, Janoviak homes in on Dickens’ belief that people can have a change of heart. Gradgrind may be something of a fool, but he’s no Pangloss, adopting a handy theory as an excuse for libertinism. Gradgrind’s public-spirited and wants to be generous: he just gets it wrong. He begins with the Utilitarian tenet that society’s main goal is “the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people” – a not unreasonable response to the industrial revolution that created a few big winners and a multitude of losers (sound familiar?) as it wrenched Europe away from its agrarian roots – and extends it to a belief that reason, and reason alone, will improve the average person’s lot.

Thus, at the logical extreme, one must not have a floral-printed rug in one’s house, because flowers do not grow on floors. Feel free, if you like, to think of the framers of No Child Left Behind and the resulting catastrophic capitulation of public education to the test-and-numbers-dominated tyranny of the so-called “basics.” No place or time or money for flowered floors, or art or music. Schooling is preparation for the marketplace. Facts. Facts. Facts.

Fact is, facts alone don’t cut it – and when Gradgrind realizes this, he changes. Voltaire offers a brilliant indictment. Dickens adds hope. It’s not so much the theory itself, maybe, as the application. When something’s wrong, you do something about it. Just don’t forget you’re dealing with people, not abstract ideas. Sometimes the best theory’s no theory at all. As Bull Durham says: “This is a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball.”

You can catch the show through June 2 at CoHo, 2257 N.W. Raleigh St. Ticket and schedule information are here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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