You’ll either be vastly entertained or terribly frustrated by Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone. The key to your reaction will be in the first five minutes of the play. If you decide to accept Jean’s motivation and her actions in those early moments, you will have no trouble suspending disbelief for the rest of the performance. And you will have to suspend disbelief.
Write-ups describe the play as surreal and non-linear. I think it’s purely linear, but then I read science fiction. It is surreal. In fact, if anything it tries a little too hard to be surreal. It is also funny, weird, dark in spots, and very sweet, with a sweet ending.
The set uses a large screen at the back with various images projected onto it to augment the scenes. Umbrellas predominate, and umbrellas are a recurring theme in the play. Umbrellas, and cell phones. Red umbrellas and the color red figure prominently in the sets and the costuming. I don’t know why, exactly, I just know it works.
The acting made this show for me. As always, Scott D. Phillips turned in a smooth and generous performance as Gordon, the dead man. Hey, just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you don’t get lines. Gordon is a bad and selfish person, but there has to be something to like about him, and Phillips helps us find it. I take Scott Phillips for granted. I always expect a performance that’s better than just good, and he never disappoints, and I never say enough about that. And I haven’t here either, really, but someday I will.
Bronwen Shears, so hissably evil as Milady in last year’s Three Musketeers has a different problem. She is awesome, but her character is a caricature, a blend of Natasha Fatale and Jessica Rabbit. This is intentional and Shears plays it to the top, but I miss the chance to see more subtlety from her. (I wish the play had allowed for selfish Gordon and sinister Other Woman to have some scenes together—they would have been tense and hilarious.) Shears is still great. “And I can walk in these shoes,” is one of the best-delivered lines in the play.
Edward McCloud plays Dwight, Gordon’s neglected younger brother, with honesty and vulnerability, and he’s sexy.
The three performers who tear up the scenery are Elena Wright, Mollie Boice and Priscilla Locke as Jean, Mrs. Gottlieb and Hermia respectively. Locke, as Gordon’s widow, does one of the best drunk scenes ever. Ever! Mollie Boice is a force of nature as his eccentric mother. Many actresses would not be able to rise above the moth-eaten fox stole, the overdone make-up and the hat with the fingertip veil and the pheasant feathers, but Boice wears the costume, it does not wear her.
Jean is the pivotal character of the play, and Elena Wright informs her with innocence, imagination and a strange sense of obsession. “Things that are ringing have to be answered, don’t they? Don’t they?” she says, perhaps explaining her initiating actions. Jean wants to make things—not things, the world—better, and she believes, or wants to believe, that things connect; people connect, voices connect, souls connect. Wright is luminous in this naïve and slightly dangerous role.
The Main Street Theater is tiny, so much of the action takes place in the aisles and right in front of the stage. A little more action than usual, in the performance I saw. During the dinner party scene, while Jean and Dwight were awkwardly getting to know each other, Jean’s wineglass tipped over, rolled in a half circle and fell to the floor, chiming as it shattered. Wow, great sound effects! It sounded like a real glass broke. Awkwardly, Jean and Dwight struggled to clean it up, using his mother’s place cards and their red napkins, all the while talking about vegetables and stationary stores. I’m thinking, “They break a glass every night? That must get expensive. It must be some kind of special fake prop-plastic.” I moved my foot and it crunched on a piece of glass. I picked it up. Real glass, a piece about the length of a flash-drive. In the next scene, Dwight and Jean sat on the edge of the stage, right in front of me, and lights winked off another big shard of glass, right by their hands. This seemed. . . I don’t know, a little dangerous for the actors.
During intermission I asked one of the associates if the glass was part of the performance. “Oh, yes, every night,” he said.
“I thought so,” I said.
He started laughing. “No! No, it wasn’t planned! We all jumped when we heard it out here! They’ll be delighted to hear you thought it was part of the play.”
To be fair, this play is probably easier to manage if you have trouble distinguishing performance from reality, as I apparently do.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone plays one more weekend. If you like good acting and things that are out of the ordinary, check it out. And if you find a dead man’s cell phone, you probably shouldn’t answer it.
104 N Main Street, Sebastopol, CA 95472