The meeting between Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll portrayed in Daniel Singer’s new play, “A Perfect Likeness,” is so lovely and entertaining that you want it to be true. But, alas, the events of the play, which had its world-premiere Thursday night in a production by Paper Lantern Theatre Company, never took place.
“A Perfect Likeness” is being presented as part of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America’s annual meeting, being held in and around Winston-Salem through Sunday. All events, except the play, are free and open to the public. For information, visit lewiscarroll.org, e-mail email@example.com or call (336) 724-5627.
Dickens, portrayed by Michael Kamtman as a passionate extrovert who loved his fame, and Carroll, played by Ben Baker as a proper gentleman who loved his privacy, were contemporaries, but they never met.
In the play, however, Dickens visits Carroll in his study at Oxford University to have his photograph made. Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, had just had a great success with his children’s book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” but he was also a mathematics lecturer and a fellow of Christ Church College.
Carroll’s attempt to capture “A Perfect Likeness” of Dickens provides a construct against which these two great intellects discuss and express the meaning of life, love, passion and their innermost desires and demons.
Designer Perry Ransbottom has set an evocative scene with Victorian furniture and leather-bound books embossed with gold-leaf. Beams of light slant across the stage as Carroll tries to get the light just so on Dickens.
Above the realistically depicted room, reams of parchment-like pages float like clouds over the upper walls. Onto these are projected illustrations from Carroll’s books as well as his now-famous photographs of children, most particularly of Alice Liddell, namesake of the literary Alice. Jonathan Christman of Wake Forest created the projections.
Both men are intensely passionate about life, but each expresses it differently.
Dodgson is upright, some might say uptight, to the point of being absolutely prissy. Baker has him hop up and down as if he would jump right out of his skin – literally hopping mad – at Dickens’ persistence in cursing.
An argument about Shakespeare’s relative bawdiness drives them to hilarious “blows” in a fencing match using an umbrella and a walking cane.
In sharp contrast to Baker’s contained Carroll, Kamtman plays Dickens as consistently expressive, unable to sit still for his photograph, fuming and sputtering about the stage.
“A Perfect Likeness” is ultimately about the mysteries of love and the infinite means of its expression. Director John Gulley has drawn wonderful performances from these very capable actors and wound up with an evening of theater that will be remembered – and one hopes – be replayed many, many times.