Review: Phoenix Theater play makes us reflect on our place in the electronic world

With Dead Man’s Cell Phone, the playwright wants us to laugh at the theater – and reflect on the way home

I admit I was uneasy when it was announced that the student comedians in Dead man’s cell phone would wear COVID masks for most of the game.

What would that mean for this University of Victoria production, marking the drama school’s triumphant return to performing arts in the era of the pandemic? Would masked actors be like gloved musicians? What can an actor convey with his eyes? Would the show look a bit like the Carnival of Venice – and therefore quite odd?

The good news – somehow, Thursday’s opening night performance made it all work. Yes, aside from the occasional discoveries, the cast in Sarah Ruhl’s 2007 absurd comedy had their mouths and noses covered. Yet, strangely enough, we soon forgot about it. Maybe it’s because, 20 months later, we have socially adapted to a masked world.

Dead man’s cell phone is a strange affair. When a cell phone rings annoyingly in a cafe, Jean (Jane Rees) picks it up, believing she has a right to stop the din. To his surprise, it turns out that the phone’s owner Gordon (Ryan Kniel) couldn’t pick up because he just died in front of his bowl of lentil soup. What follows is an eccentric journey into a bizarre world that is as real and surreal as any Magritte fantasy.

Jean, well-meaning and indiscreet, takes it upon himself to become the keeper of Gordon’s phone, answering all of his incoming calls. When her survivors – wife, brother, mother, mistress – express their grief at her passing, she comforts them by making up great stories about her last moments. Mom, for example, learns that her estranged son tried to call her at the very end; The Mistress is told that Gordon expressed his deep love for her just before turning her off. Jean reinvents history even more skillfully than the post-January GOP. 6 – everyone is being told what they so desperately want to hear.

Ruhl’s dialogue is absurd, eccentric, and relentlessly intelligent. His bizarre humor might not be for everyone – the couple in front of me fled after intermission. But most people, like me, will find his Oscar Wilde hints for the 21st century a rare treat. At one point, Gordon’s mother, Mrs. Gottlieb, declares that Jean is heartwarming like “a tiny little pot”. We later learn that she named her other son Dwight because she “felt sorry for the name”.

There is a lot to like about this production. As Jean, the well-represented Rees emerged as the heart and soul of the series, charming us with her warmth, exuberance, and shrewd comedic talent.

Kniel, playing Gordon, can finally speak in Act II, delivering a long and potentially difficult monologue with confidence and gusto (topics include organ harvesting and the danger of losing your soul on modern public transport).

Sometimes Maddy El Baroudi – overall a strong stage presence as Ms. Gottlieb – fell into a weirdly stilted performance. Fortunately, this trend faded as the room progressed. The cast includes Holly Hamilton (Hermia), Branden Sugden (Dwight) and Taylor Williams (Carlotta).

The lighting by designer Patrick Du Wors is remarkable. In one scene, Gordon, making an entrance amidst fog and film noir jazz, is illuminated by a green light at ground level giving him a spectacular five-meter-tall Dashiel Hammett shadow.

The ensemble of Du Wors is dominated by a monumental structure (brushed steel / cement appearance) representing the building which frames the café window. The vastness of this opening, eclipsing the tables inside, can be a nod to Edward Hopper’s painting. Nightjars, famous portrayal of lonely people at a late night dinner party.

Bold attention to detail elevates this production. Everything choreographer Jacques Lemay touches is a delight, whether it’s a fight scene featuring a lamp in the shape of a human kidney or a change of scenery that turns into a charming formal dance. During a love scene, tiny houses and a shower of papers fall from the sky; elsewhere, a retro airliner model cut across the horizon, earning its own applause.

Fran Gebhard – whose steady hand reveals a firm understanding of Ruhl’s humor – says Hopper was an inspiration in his direction of the play. To be sure, the painter’s fascination with human isolation in modern times parallels Ruhl’s own themes.

The playwright finds the irony in the fact that we embrace technology to connect with others, yet find ourselves isolated by our ubiquitous electronic devices. And there’s more. Are John’s White Lies a Metaphor for the Comfort of Religion? Is Gordon’s Slice and Dice Affair a Commentary on Contemporary Commerce and Political Practices?

With Dead man cell Call, Ruhl wants us to laugh at the theater – and reflect on the way home.

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Performances continue until November 27. Some live shows are offered.


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