nytheatre.com review by Lynn Marie Macy
February 14, 2010
Congratulations to New Jersey Repertory Theatre for dedicating their time and resources to the development of exciting original work. It is gratifying to leave a theatre having discovered something more of history.
The world premiere of Exposure Time by Kim Merrill explores the lives of two icons of early photography in Victorian England: Julia Margaret Cameron and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) and their varied relationships with mutual friend and model Alice Liddell (of Alice in Wonderland fame). While inspired by historical fact, the story is primarily a fictionalized account of the pioneering photographers' rivalry and differing views of the purpose and nature of photography: is it an art form or it a scientific technique?
This is certainly a worthy subject and Merrill's intelligent script truly celebrates these historical figures with humor and engaging thought. The play is most successful when the characters are engaged directly with one another. At other times some of the dialogue feels a bit overly expository. Continued development should be encouraged to flesh out the characters a bit further. Merrill's point of view as author is also somewhat unclear. Both Julia Cameron and Alice Liddell act as "narrator," speaking directly to the audience, and part of the script is described as being in Alice's "imagination," resulting in a definitively split focus.
Director Alan Souza keeps the story moving and the pacing tight. The transitions from one scene to the next work smoothly except for one instance when an actor playing the dual roles of Cameron's husband and Alfred Lord Tennyson is obliged to change from one character to another instantly and without the benefit of any real physical transition. It was awkward and took some time for the audience to catch up.
Portrayals of well-known historical figures present their own special challenges. Andrea Gallo makes a feisty Cameron but scores fewer points in recreating an eccentric Victorian English artist. Her vocal and physical demeanor is decidedly contemporary and American. Jessica Lauren Howell is a lovely, haunted Alice. Adam Jonas Segaller as Dodgson is appealing but does not delve into character nuance (the intellectual mathematician Dodgson was famous for a stammer among other quirks). John Fitzgibbons makes a colorful Tennyson but struggles a bit in giving his second character, Charles Hey Cameron, a life of his own. These talented performers would have been assisted enormously in their characterizations had they been working with English dialects. If the ultimate goal of a script is to successfully transport the audience to another place and time, the decision not to use appropriate accents is a mystery that in the end does not serve the script. Working with an English dialect greatly affects performance style (important in historical drama), physicality, and even facial expression. Indeed some of the actors appeared to be battling their natural instincts and expending energy trying not to speak with English accents. There was a loss there and theatre audiences certainly are sophisticated enough to know the difference.
In the program, the setting is described as "a fantastical version of Julia's studio." Jill Nagel's lights and Quinn Stone's sets are more functionally realistic and don't quite meet that challenge in creativity. A few of Cameron and Dodgson's photographs are projected on the set at various moments to wonderful effect and if anything this was an underutilized technique to share their actual work with contemporary audiences and stir the imagination.
Patricia E. Doherty's costumes are lovely and evocative of the era. She employs a beautiful combination of textures and fabrics. However, a bit more differentiation in costume for Cameron/Tennyson might have also helped with his character transitions. Slightly problematic as well are the ladies' hairstyles: Julia Cameron sports a non-period bob, while Alice Liddell is somewhat overwhelmed by an unmanageable wig.
The title of the script Exposure Time relates to the complicated physical and chemical processes needed to develop early photographic images. It is an apt and interesting metaphor for the creation of theatre itself—capturing brief moments in time for our pleasure and contemplation. Kudos to the producers of NJ Rep for finding this interesting multi-faceted gem. It just needs a bit more polishing to set it off in its best light.