by Dick Kerekes
Gainesville’s Hippodrome Theatre opened its first play of 2010 in its 37th season, with Sarah Ruhl’s clever and funny Dead Man’s Cell Phone. It will be on the stage at their downtown theatre until January 31st. Hippodrome reservations and tickets at (352) 375-4477 and
Sarah Ruhl is one of America’s hottest playwrights at this time. She was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005 with her play The Clean House, a comedy about a doctor who could not convince her Brazilian maid to clean her house. Dead Man’s Cell Phone, premiered in Washington DC in 2007, in New York in 2008 and was produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2009. This past November, her play The Vibrator opened in New York! To call Ruhl bold, would be an understatement as you will learn when you see this play.
Choosing the cell phone as subject matter for a play could be called good marketing since 88 percent of the people in America use cell phones!! That is right 88 out of every 100 people you know use one. It is certainly an interesting instrument, no doubt responsible for making a living for many sales people. With so many new features now, like photography and text messages, they can be a lot of fun, but also get people into a whole lot of trouble. (Ask a certain golf professional about that voice-mail feature.)
This satire starts out easy enough. A woman in her 30s, named Jean (Nichole Hamilton) is finishing her lunch at a restaurant, when she notices and becomes irritated that the man at the next table is refusing to answer his ringing cell phone. She walks over and answers it and then realizes that the man is not impolite or asleep but dead. She calls 911 and continues to answering the phone without telling the callers what has happened, just saying “I’ll take a message.” After answering a number of calls Jean feels close to the dead man, Gordon, though they never met in the past.
Jean becomes enmeshed with the people in this former man’s life that include: his boozing & beef eating Mother (Sara Morsey), his younger meek and unappreciated brother Dwight (Matthew Lindsay), his frank and figure skating ex wife Hermia (Jessica Ires Morris) and his sexy and mysterious mistress (Teniece Divya Johnson). By the end of Act one, everyone thinks Jean has been a part of Gordon’s life, either as a lover, a co-worker or just a close friend.
In Act two, this play becomes what I would call a modern example of the theatre of the absurd. It opens with Gordon, the dead guy, coming back from the hereafter to talk to the audience and explain a great deal about his life and how he died. Tim Altmeyer is wonderful and truly funny in this role, and he adds yet another outstanding performance to his already long and impressive Hippodrome resume. He gives us some tips on life after death. For example, you will be wearing the same clothing you die in for the rest of eternity, so going naked for a weekly trip to the laundromat is unnecessary. (I did mention that this is a comedy, didn’t I?)
So many bizzare things happen in the last 45 minutes of this show, I could not begin to try to sort them out. Jean gets romantically involved with Dwight. The mistress and Jean begin to run what was Gordon’s somewhat evil business, the nature of which I will let you discover when you see the play.
Hippodrome’s long time Artistic Director Lauren Caldwell, has done her usually excellent job of casting, and the acting by all the cast is superb. Kent Barrett, as Scenic Designer, is making his Hippodrome debut with this show, and his very modern but minimalistic cafe is striking, especially with the evocative lighting by Lighting Designer Robert Robins. Costume Designer Marilyn Wall’s creations for the ladies have a lot of eye appeal and very much bring out the individual personalities of each.
The advertising for Dead Man’s Cell Phone, compares it to The Twilight Zone, and as a big fan of that 50’s series, I have to agree. It may leave you bit perplexed at the end, but it is a fast paced show and you never lose interest in the 90 minutes of action (in two acts).
The Hippodrome has become a big fan of Sarah Ruhl’s work, since presenting her Eurydice last season. I would bet that Ruhl’s latest play The Vibrator will be at the Hipp as soon as it becomes available. I will let you use your imagination what it is about. Right now, don’t miss the unusual and truly interesting theatre experience that Dead Man’s Cell Phone promises and delivers. P.S. Please leave you cell phones in your car!