EVERYONE'S ALWAYS force-feeding Dickens to us—high school English teachers and the holiday theatrical season being most guilty—but I've never developed a taste for that prolific Victorian genius. Not to be a scrooge (bad), I admit that I did not have great expectations (worse) for CoHo Productions and Salem Repertory Theatre's co-production of Hard Times.

Hard Times is set in Coketown, England, where the hands of the many work in the soot-stained brick factories to fill the pockets of the few. But even the prosperous don't get to have fun, because utilitarianism is the presiding theory of the day, teaching "fact and never fancy." Dickens took major issue with both the suppression of the imagination and the exploitation of the working class, and attacks both with his satire.

Cramming all the characters and complications of a Dickens novel into two hours on a sparse stage with four actors and 22 characters is a feat in itself, but Stephen Jeffreys' adaptation manages it. Unfortunately, shifts in pace and tone are sacrificed for plot development, which is mostly a series of big moments of disappointment and deception.

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I shudder to think what the evening may have been if not for the comedic prowess of actors Camille Cettina, Ted deChatelet, David Janoviak, and McKenna Twedt. Each actor exhibits impressive range, but Cettina is a tour de force. The physical particularities of her many characters are all finely crafted, particularly the neurotic widow Mrs. Sparsit and the unionist worker Mary Stokes, who steals the show with one speech.

Michael Gerber ably directs the production, and while I don't plan on adding any Dickens to my bookshelf, I won't be able to forget the characters brought to life by this talented cast.

SLAY Film Fest
In person at the Clinton St. Theater 10/29 & 10/30