Review: Hard Times- Puppetmongers

by Lucy Allen

Do you like puppets?  Do you like Charles Dickens and his commentary on social class structure?  Then Puppetmongers‘ Hard Times, currently playing at Theatre Passe Muraille, is right up your alley.  And if you’re one of the many who are thinking that a puppet show would be meant for children, this is the show that will teach you otherwise.

Created by Ann and David Powell, Hard Times is an adaptation of the Charles Dickens’ novel of the same name.  Using various puppets and masks, the show tells the story of Louisa Gradgrind, a young girl growing up in the Industrial Revolution who is taught nothing but cold, hard facts and dissuaded away from “fancies” such as the travelling circus that comes into town.  There she meets Sissy Jupe, a girl her own age who has been abandoned by her circus clown father and who doesn’t have the apititude for learning “facts” that Louisa does.

The puppetry and mask work alone is worth the price of admission.  Watching the pale, seemingly inanimate faces suddenly be brought to life with only the simplest movements was proof of the skill and talent of the creators.  Each puppet had a very distinct character whether it showed in the mask or through their movements.  What I really liked was that a character wasn’t necessarily confined to one type of puppet.  Louisa, for instance, was both a glove puppet and a mask at different points in the show.  Children growing up was signified by simply pulling on the legs of a puppet to make them longer.  All of it was fascinating to watch and I loved seeing what new puppets would come out each scene.

The show also makes great use of its limited space.  One scene that took place over a dinner had only the table and several pairs of hands visible but ended up being one of the most compelling scenes in the show.  It was very easy to get dragged into the world of the show with even the simplest of sets, like the circus which was indicated by tying the backdrop sheet to the front of the stage to make it look like a tent and then having shadow puppets behind it to show the entertainment.

Having never read the novel, I got a bit afraid at times that I wouldn’t understand what was going on.  Dickens was not really known for being concise, after all.  The narration in between scenes helped to introduce characters without too much confusion.  My show partner Dave, who was the familiar with the novel, felt it was a great adaptation that kept the heart of the story quite well.

The actors (Ann Powell, David Powell and Anand Rajaram) all constantly switch parts.  All of them did a great job switching from character to character at the drop of a hat, but it was Anand Rajaram who stole the show for me.  His portrayal of the loud mouthed Mr. Bouderby and the stuck-up Hearthouse had the audience enthralled.

The one thing that Dave found a bit distracting were some line flubs that got to be pretty common.  I wouldn’t have mentioned them except for the fact that it’s fairly late in the run now and usually I only notice those types of things on opening night.  But again, it could have just been an isolated performance and when one of the only complaints is of a few mixed up words I think that makes the show worth it.

Hard Times is nearing the end of its run and is playing to sold out audiences so if you want to check it out, book your tickets quickly!  It’s an experience not to be missed.  For anyone who’s ever felt frustrated at being just another number in a vast system or who just want to see some excellent puppetry, this show is for you.

Hard Times is playing at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Ave) until Oct 17 (performance added Sunday)
-Shows are Tues-Sat at 7:30pm with matinees Sat/Sun at 2pm
-Tickets are $20
-Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 416-504-7529
-Photo credit: Aviva Armour-Ostroff