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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Dead Man’s Cell Phone’ rings in surreal ways in De Pere

Critic At Large

St. Norbert College Theatre Studies

Play poster.

DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV)

The dead guy eventually speaks and tells frankly of his diabolical job while the woman who has acquired his cell phone lies her way through kindnesses for the people in his life, including his wife, mistress and mother.

All is darkly comic and offbeat – complete with blunt verbiage – as a St. Norbert College Theatre Studies cast ventures into playwright Sarah Ruhl’s mind adventures.

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” draws one in because of its opening situation, followed by the unreeling of a large spool of what-ifs.

The story is preposterous, but the acting style is naturalistic, and the result is the surreal.

The foundation character is Jean. In a café, Jean is innocently eating what we later learn is lobster bisque when a man’s cell phone chimes at a neighboring table. The man doesn’t answer. The continuing sound of the phone annoys Jean.

The first what-if: What if she gets up, walks over and discovers the man has died sitting up in his chair?

Second what-if: What if she picks up the dead man’s pesky cell phone and answers it?

Other what-if’s: What if she keeps the cell phone and keeps on answering it?

Now the play is in motion. Jean finds out the owner of the cellphone is named Gordon. By keeping his phone, Jean begins to build the life of Gordon in a trail that includes attending Gordon’s funeral dominated by his bizarre mother, meeting Gordon’s mistress, dining of sorts with his family, hearing a confession of his wife and traveling to Johannesburg, South Africa.

The play is something of a rant about modern technology and how it connects and disconnects at the same time. “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is from 2007, so in ways what the grumbles were about back then are even more so in 2019. The beast has gotten better/worse.

Plays often taking the audience to places it otherwise wouldn’t or couldn’t go, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” delves into the world of organ trafficking and visits a place beyond life. By coincidence, this production opened on Nov. 1, “the day of the dead” for some.

Much seems normal in how Jordan Schuman approaches the role of Jean as regular person. Schuman has an everyday way about her as Jean meets up with characters who she disarms and sets off with kindness. The sweetness makes a momentary burst of foul language by Jean all the more effective.

Other players have their bursts, too – Robin Wylie as the pampered mother, Jack Righeimer as the amoral Gordon and Ava Baenen as the sexually vivid wife. Emily Tomcek portrays the forthright mistress, and Garret Fritz is Gordon’s nice-guy brother.

The performance is in the three-quarter round of the Webb Theatre, so the audience has to pay close attention as the players move and speak in varied directions.

Along with Jean’s gush of sassy words, two of the monologues are corkers. They are written is sizzling ways by Sarah Ruhl and delivered with spark. Gordon (Jack Righeimer) tips an avalanche of jaundice onto modern society. Hermia (Ava Baenen) heats up imaginations with sensual fantasies.  

Director Erin Hunsader develops a strong consistency in the players, with the production having a wholeness from the get-go – a choreographed bustle of humanity with umbrellas.

The look of the production is other. A basic is the floor, which is black with a pattern of white-lined squares in a perspective leading toward the rear of the stage. Scenes change – café to funeral home to Gordon’s family’s dining room to Johannesburg and a “beyond” – with the movement of a few set pieces. Panels at the rear of the performance space also move and turn to create new places. Constantly above is a kind of modern art effect of disjointed white chunks that give the impression of something shattered… which is what happens to Jean’s life because of that annoying cell phone.

***

Creative: Playwright – Sarah Ruhl; director – Erin Hunsader; sceneographer – April Beiswenger; properties coordinator – Micaela Rozmarenoski; hair/make-up designer – Kassidy Ashbeck; dramaturg – John Dicks; sound coordinator – Michael Kielty; technical director – Corey Pinchart; assistant technical director – Brittney Roffers; theater operations director – Paul Mashl; stage manager – Maddy Kuehl; assistant stage managers – Ben Wylie, Maddy Brisbane;

Cast:

Jean, a woman – Jordan Schuman

Gordon, a dead man – Jack Righeimer

Mrs. Gottlieb, Gordon’s mother – Robin Wylie

Dwight, Gordon’s brother – Garret Fritz

Hermia, Gordon’s wife – Ava Baenen

Carlotta, Gordon’s mistress/The Stranger – Emily Tomcek

Ensemble – Mason Chapman

Spencer Catalano

Halle Martin

Anton Maslwoski

Marybeth Healy

Running time: One hour, 55 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 1-2, 2 p.m. Nov. 3 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7-9

Info: snc.edu/tickets

***

THE VENUE: The 184-seat Neil and Mary Webb Memorial Theatre is the smaller of two theaters in St. Norbert College’s Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts. The space has an amphitheater feel with its sloped seating area. The stage is one-of-a-kind thrust stage, meaning it “thrusts” into the audience space. A traditional proscenium stage has a flat front and usually has curtains. A trust stage rarely uses curtains. People in front rows can practically reach out and touch performers when the performers are on the stage lip. Any seat in the theater is close to the action.

THE PEOPLE: Neil and Mary Webb were husband and wife. Neil Webb was president of St. Norbert College from 1973 to 1983. He earlier headed the St. Norbert psychology department. He left academics for a while before becoming president of Dominican College in California. In December 1987, Neil and Mary Webb died in an airplane crash in California in an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee. That was shortly before the Hall of Fine Arts was to be remodeled with a small theater in the plans. Neil Webb had a lot of friends in the community and had the reputation, so his name was used to raise funds for the theater.

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