The Actors Gymnasium, whose motto is “Learn to Fly,” has called Evanston home for more than 20 years. Guided by its vision of “a revitalized American theatre; one with performances as thrilling as a rock concert, as mesmerizing as the circus,” Actors Gym teaches circus techniques and performs original plays featuring circus and physical theater, all at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center.
Artistic Director Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, herself a former circus performer and award-winning director and choreographer, is also a longtime member of Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago. Since its inception, Actors Gymnasium has collaborated with Lookingglass, producing a unique mix of powerful storytelling and breathtaking physical theatre. Their award-winning productions of Lookingglass Alice and Moby Dick enjoyed sellout runs and multiple revivals.
Now they bring Charles Dickens’s novel “Hard Times” to life in a stunning production at Chicago’s Water Tower that features aerial scenes magically evoking the powers of the human spirit. The production was originally staged in 2001, adapted and directed by Heidi Stillman and choreographed by Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, who are both again at the helm and have masterfully woven together the story and the circus.
A fable about an Industrial Revolution milltown, Hard Times takes aim at the dehumanizing effects of factory work, capitalist greed, and inequality, as well as an educational system that brainwashes children into accepting injustice as immutable “fact.” The novel begins with the immortal lines, “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.”
Coketown has two tyrants: Mr. Gradgrind the schoolmaster (Raymond Fox, bringing an unexpected humanity to the role) presides over the grinding down of human minds, while Mr. Bounderby is the mill boss who ruthlessly dominates their working lives. Troy West is mesmerizing as Bounderby, a blusterer who brags of his rise from rags to riches.
Dickens calls him a “bully of humility.” His workers he sees as his natural enemies, who have “one ultimate object in life. That object is, to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon.” Mr. West’s outsized, larger-than-life villain is at the same time an utterly real 21st-century corporate boss.
Fortunately for the audience, Bounderby meets his match in housemate and frenemy Mrs. Sparsit, a fallen aristocrat who dedicates herself to spying on people and rooting out their dirty secrets. Amy Carle gives Mrs. Sparsit just the right blend of comic snobbery, hypocrisy and malice in her hilarious verbal bouts with Bounderby.
Into the hellish Coketown descends a traveling circus, and a young performer, Sissy Jupe, who brings innocence, natural wisdom, and the possibility of imaginative flight to the town’s oppressed citizens.
Audrey Anderson plays Sissy with heartbreaking honesty, and brings the audience to the edge of their seats in her aerial duets with Raphael Cruz, who doubles as the young bully-in-training Bitzer.
“We call it the “metaphorical circus” or the circus of Sissy’s dreaming,” says choreographer Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi. “The metaphorical circus all happens behind a scrim. Any time Sissy is dreaming about getting away, it happens as a kind of daydream.”
Sissy and Bounderby are like good and bad angels, fighting for the soul of young Louisa Gradgrind, who is pressured into marriage and later tempted into moral corruption by the worldly Harthouse (played with deceptive charm by Nathan Hosner).
As Louisa, Cordelia Dewdney has a tragic restraint that occasionally threatens to explode into destructive passion. Another tragic figure is Stephen Blackpool, the factory worker who cannot divorce his alcoholic wife or marry the woman he loves (beautifully played by David Catlin and Louise Lamson) because of England’s divorce laws tailored to the rich.
Despite its sometimes heavy-handed melodrama, the story feels timely, dramatizing the devastating effects of the capitalist system on individual, family, and civic life as well as on the human spirit.
Scenic designer Daniel Ostling has created a bi-level, movable metal construction that can look like a doll house, a cage or a display case, visibly manifesting the characters’ metaphoric forms of imprisonment and attempts at escape.
Equally rich are the period costumes designed by Mara Blumenfeld and the melancholy, evocative music by Andre Pluess and lighting by Brian Sidney Bembridge.
“Hard Times” is just one of the Actors Gymnasium’s projects. Ms. Hernandez-DiStasi reminisces about how it all began.
“I was hired to bring circus material to Lookingglass. We had a dream of bringing something new and surprising to theater. We all pooled our money and rented the space in Evanston. From there, the Actors Gymnasium just took off. . . fast forward to today, and I have a professional training program where people can go out and be the kind of actors I can cast in the shows I am producing.
“We do nine productions a year at the Actors Gym, including a professional production called the Winter Circus. Physical theater is a very broad term, covering a huge range of movement including mime and dance. It is growing in popularity, with people putting more of these modes into their productions.
In “Hard Times,” the circus ringmaster says, “People must be amused, Squire, somehow. . . . They can’t be always a working, nor yet they can’t be always a learning.” These are wise words for our overworked, anxious times.
Ms. Hernandez-DiStasi puts it this way: “There’s nothing like walking into a show and being surprised by live aerialists hanging from the rafters. It is breathtaking. It makes you feel hopeful, it makes you feel like anything is possible. I think we all need to see more art; we need to find new ways to be hopeful.”
“Hard Times” is at the Lookingglass Theatre, in Chicago’s Water Tower Water Works, through Jan. 14, 2018.