In a Dream within a Dream

By Philip Pearce

WE LIVE IN a Zoom society these days and last Saturday the talented and resourceful Howard Burnham proved that even pandemic lockdown digital theatre can be exciting, funny and beautiful to see. Written and acted by Burnham, In a Dream within a Dream is an affectionate portrait of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the stuttering Oxford mathematician, don and cleric who wrote the Alice books and became Lewis Carroll.

Like any actor you care to name Howard Burnham says he misses direct contact with a live audience. But his specialty is dramatized biography and Saturday’s performance showed that, with a little bit of know-how, research and finesse, it’s a genre that works well on the computer screen.

At first we see him full-screen, head and shoulders, in the academic gear and Victorian haircut of the Reverend Dodgson. But as his story unfolds he becomes a small, active image on the periphery of the action whose events and personalities take center screen in a series of striking pictures. The images combine with the narration to draw parallels between what Dodgson experienced in his life and what’s said and done by the characters in his books.

The story doesn’t start in 1863 with Dodgson rowing a boat from Christ Church College with Alice Liddell and her two sisters on board. Instead, it starts years later as he and a period camera cool their heels in the back garden of a suburban mansion waiting to photograph England’s revered poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson. This multitalented cleric had a hobby of collecting cameras and taking pictures that soon earned him a reputation as a society photographer specializing in portraits of children. “I like all children,” he once admitted, “except boys.” It’s a remark that has no doubt sparked a lot of post-Freudian speculation about his fondness for females until they reached puberty. Burnham quotes it and leaves the speculations to those who enjoy that kind of thing.

His Dobson-turned-Carroll is a lovable, vulnerable learned jokester who improvised a nonsense story during a summer boat ride that grew into a children’s classic full of narrative tricks, an unforgettable cast of crazy characters, provocative puzzles and Victorian social satire. But has anyone, I wonder, ever researched how those two sisters felt when Alice turned into the star figure and they didn’t get so much as minor supporting roles?

Burnham as always is superb. He’s a performer with flawless comic timing and a mastery of dialect and characterization that, in this case, provide chirpy little girls, an envious Scottish rival author, a fluty British matron, a growling Colonel Blimp-type and a score more of other colorful eccentrics moving through Charles Dodgson’s eventful life.

He’s good on research too. I’m a lifelong Alice addict but this artful script taught me how Dodgson used his proficiency in Latin to come up with “Lewis Carroll” as a nom de plume. And how the Anglo Saxon language figures prominently in the nonsense vocabulary of Jabberwocky.

A vote of thanks to Howard and to Monterey County Theatre Alliance for supplying a welcome Zoom hour of forget-the-virus entertainment.

The show will be viewable on line for the next few weeks. Click HERE