Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Out of Focus Exposure Time at NJ Rep
Kim Merrill's fictional play Exposure Time is based on real people and events. Julia Margaret Cameron was an early portrait photographer. Charles L. Dodgson, who was a mathematician at Christ Church school at Oxford, was also a photographer and an author. He is best remembered by his pen name, Lewis Carroll, under which he published his "Alice Through the Looking Glass." Alice Liddell was the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, for whom Carroll wrote "Alice," and whom he photographed among other boys and girls in poses which many believe to display his pedophilia. Less germane to the story is British Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson, Julia's friend and neighbor.
Exposure Time is confusing right from the start. It begins in 1872 and travels to various dates between 1851 and 1879 "with forays into the present." Initially, Julia talks directly to the audience (which might be one of the play's "forays into the present"):
Julia is now 57 years old and ranges between the ages of 36 and 57 during the play. Charles L. Dodgson "first appears" at age 24 and ranges between 18 and 38. Alice is age 20, and ranges from 4 to 20. It seems that the play is set in 1872 with "forays" back from there. However, where we are on the timeline is often difficult to ascertain.
Equally difficult is finding a focus for the story. Ultimately, I've concluded that this is a feminist play about artistic photographer Cameron being ignored because of dismissive attitudes towards women while the straightforward, bland photographs of the male Hodgson become enshrined in our consciousness. However, only in part because of the fame of Lewis Carroll and his Alice, the center of our interest here is the relationship between Dodgson and Alice Liddell. Uninterestingly, it turns out that Carroll expresses only disdain for Liddell and her interest in him. Dodgson tells her that he only photographed her to court the favor of her father, and nastily rejects her overtures toward him. There is likely a feminist point here about women made to feel that they need the approval of men to affirm their worth. The role of Tennyson is that of a warm and kindly genius who is a fond friend to Julia and appreciates the high level of her art. Furthermore, a play seemingly about Lewis Carroll and photography evokes thoughts of the speculation concerning the eroticism of Carroll's photography of Alice and other (sometimes naked) children. The fact that this issue is never contemplated (even in an exculpatory manner) leaves a void in the play for those who are aware of Dodgson and his photography.
Still, there is Kim Merrill's short monologue for Julia Cameron at the start of Exposure Time which I have quoted above. Like much of her text, it is graceful and soaring. Furthermore, it reflects the qualities which Merrill assigns to Julia Margaret Cameron. It indicates that Merrill has significant potential as a playwright. If she had not cut up her play like a jigsaw puzzle it would surely have played better. Yhe synopses and publicity for promoting any production should clearly emphasize that this play is about Julia Margaret Cameron and not Charles Dodgson.
Jessica Lauren Howell does a nice job of simulating the behavior of Alice as a precocious child. Andrea Gallo is a graceful and winning as Julia. Adam Jonas Segaller doesn't make any major missteps, but he does not overcome the tentative nature of Merrill's Dodgson. John Fitzgibbon is an appropriately warm Tennyson.
Director Alan Souza has failed to overcome Exposure Time's lack of clarity and focus. Set Designer Quinn Stone has done an excellent job in expanding the playing area and providing an attractive, open look for Julia's home studio, unobtrusively providing the spaces required for projected photographs.
Author Kim Merrill posits that being unfocused contributes to the artistry of Julia Margaret Cameron's photos. Possibly there's a correlation between this and the unfocused construction of her play.
Exposure Time continues performances (Evenings: Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8 pm/ Saturday 3 pm; Sunday 2 pm / Selected Sundays 7 pm through March 21, 2010 at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ 07740. Box Office: 732-229-3166; online: www.njrep.org.
Exposure Time by Kim Merrill; directed by Alan Souza