by Lynn on October 26, 2010

in Archive,Picks & Pans

Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace until Oct. 16, 2010.

Toronto is lucky to have resident theatre companies that tell provocative stories using puppets. One of them is the award winning Puppetmongers. They have joined with the equally theatrical company ‘the night kitchen’ to produce their most challenging work—HARD TIMES, by Charles Dickens. Do puppets add a different dimension to the story telling? Does this harrowing tale have more resonance when performed by puppets? Our theatre critic, Lynn Slotkin is here to tell us.

Hi Lynn. We always start with the story. For those who have not read HARD TIMES by Charles Dickens, briefly, what’s the story?

HARD TIMES was written by Dickens in 1854. Dickens chronicles the hard times of the coming of the Industrial Age, when making money was everything, and people were considered numbers or objects and not human. When, if a man was fired from one job, no one in the town would hire him after that and the man would have to go to another town for work.

The story is also about Louisa Gradgrind whose tyrannical school teacher-father thought that only facts were important, and not emotions or imagination. He thought nothing of marrying her off to a loudmouth industrialist named Josiah Bounderby, and she complied. She eventually realized how damaging her father’s ideas were.

This being Dickens he paints a bleak picture but full of vibrant characters.

How does the story telling meld with the puppets?

First comes the idea. Chris Earle, who adapted and directed HARD TIMES, got the idea from the Mike Harris years in which all non-essential funding was cut—the arts? Forget it. Earle thought that attitude was Dickensian. Which got him thinking about HARD TIMES by Dickens.

And since people were treated like objects, who better to tell the story than puppets. So Puppetmongers, composed of brother and sister David and Ann Powell, built the puppets, the various masks that are used to tell the story, and the impressive set. David and Ann Powell also manipulate the puppets. Another actor was engaged to work with them, the gifted Anand Rajaram. So the characters from the book are there but they are played by various puppets or the actors wearing masks.

It sounds like a huge project.

It is, certainly for Puppetmongers. I think it’s the largest project they have ever been involved in. They usually write and perform their own stories, fairy tales with a gentle bite. So HARD TIMES is a real leap forward, involving a lot of puppets, masks and a huge, complicated story.

And does it work, doing such a hard-hitting story with puppets?

The short answer is no, but it’s not without merit. The puppets and masks are very evocative of the characters they depict. The use of shadow and light creates many arresting images. Some of the storytelling is chilling, as one would expect from a Dickens novel.

I detect a “but”.

You’re right. But. Chris Earle’s adaptation is too unwieldy. There was some struggling with remembering lines last night at the opening. HARD TIMES was a favourite novel of Earle’s late mother—he dedicates he performance to her. So I get a sense of the reverential about his adaptation, as if every word had to be there.

It doesn’t.

It could do with judicious, ruthless cutting. Also, while the puppets did evoke the various characters it is hard to keep track of what puppet is who because they are inanimate objects and not bone fide actors with facial and physical variation. Actors clearly delineate characters. Puppets in this case don’t.

Anand Rajaram is a fine actor and is wonderful in many parts, especially a recently fired, dejected man. But when he plays the bombastic Josiah Bounderby, his bellowing makes him unintelligible. It would have been helpful for a list of characters and their relationships as well. So, bravo to them for attempting such a huge project. But I think a lot more thought is needed to do the story justice.

HARD TIMES plays at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, until Oct. 16.