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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 52.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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In Dead Man's Cell Phone, Madison Theatre Guild explores the discomfort that comes with adopting new technology
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Dead Man's Cell Phone: An attempt to provide closure.
Credit:Jason Atkins

Remember when cell phones were still called "cell phones," not "smartphones" or just "phones"? Madison Theatre Guild takes us back to those not-so-long-ago days with Dead Man's Cell Phone (through March 15 at the Bartell Theatre), directed by L.M. Attea.

The premise of Dead Man's Cell Phone is promising: A cell phone rings in a nondescript café and a stranger, discovering that the phone’s owner is dead, begins to answer the calls.

Sarah Karon is a perfect choice for Jean, the almost-40-year-old woman who picks up the dead man's flip phone. She's petite and pretty but hides behind limp hair and baggy clothes. A people pleaser, she's the sort of girl who says she's "kind of a vegetarian." Her one-dimensionality is written in: She's painfully optimistic and uncomfortable in her own skin and stays that way through most of the show. She's slightly changed at the end, but it's more of a fairy-tale transformation, without visible growth throughout the play.

Dead man Gordon, played by Sam D. White, is remarkably captivating. His monologue at the beginning of the second act had the audience spellbound on opening night. He's dead, so he's in a position to be totally honest, and it's that honesty that makes him the most complex, and therefore the most interesting, character. He's self-aware and self-absorbed, a bad guy version of Frasier Crane. Even his suit, tie and gold tie tack seemed pulled straight from Dr. Crane's closet.

Lighting design by Steven M. Peterson is simple, but dramatic: a sudden flash of blinding light when Gordon dies, full darkness surrounding the audience at other moments. Fred-Allen Self's set is sparse. It efficiently fills the Bartell's small Evjue Stage and provides an unobtrusive backdrop for the action. Costumes, designed by Simone La Pierre, are well executed. Gordon's mother, Mrs. Gottlieb (Karen Lazar), is especially impressive, decked out in furs and jewels that glitter under the lights.

Words like "oddball" and "playful" have been used to describe Dead Man's Cell Phone in the past, and indeed, I chuckled a bit at some moments, often because of their sheer quirkiness. "You're like a very small casserole," says Mrs. Gottlieb to Jean. Other times, a line caught would seem like a nod to something bigger and deeper, like when Gordon's brother Dwight (Bryan Royston) laments the invasion of digital communication. "Remembering requires paper," he muses.

But I wanted more from Dead Man's Cell Phone. The play itself felt unfocused and outdated, even though it's less than 10 years old. Playwright Sarah Ruhl seems to set out to critique technology's impact on society but ends up all over the place: winding through hypotheses about the afterlife, lauding the aesthetics of stationery, questioning the role of religion, exposing illegal organ trading and surveying love in its various forms.

I remember when cell phones were newly ubiquitous and we were figuring out whether to be (or not be) at their beck and call. I was a late adopter, like Jean who doesn't yet have her own cell phone. "I didn't want to always be there," she explains. "Like if your phone is on, you're supposed to be there. Sometimes I like to disappear." I remember feeling exactly the same way. But, for me, that moment of change has passed and, looking back, my worries then seem naïve.

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