In the play, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” the dead guy eventually speaks and tells of organ trafficking, while the woman who has acquired his device lies her way through kindnesses for the people in his life, including his wife, mistress and mother. All is darkly comic and surreal – complete with blunt verbiage – as the Theatre on the Bay campus and community troupe ventures into playwright Sarah Ruhl’s mind adventures.
The audience reaction to the performance I attended Sunday afternoon in Herbert L. Williams Theatre on the University of Wisconsin-Marinette campus was akin to that of a chamber music concert. There was no applause after individual scenes. That came at intermission and the end. The scenes were treated like movements in a musical score, with no applause so as not to break the mood. OR… the audience didn’t get what was happening until after the no-applause habit set in.
Regardless, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is an absorbing play done with smart interpretive twists by director Rebecca Stone Thornberry et al. and featuring steady performances.
The production has three more performances this week as Theatre on the Bay closes its 49th season.
Creative: Playwright – Sarah Ruhl; director – Rebecca Stone Thornberry; assistant director – Brittany Welch; second assistant director – Benjamin Kmecheck; scenic and sound design – John Thornberry; assistant sound designer – Kenan Pulver; lighting design – Lee Bunting; costume design – Annalisa Mines; Skating costume design – Gloria Meyer, Glogirl Designs; properties – Rebecca Stone Thornberry; ribeye prop design – Jennifer Nykanen; production stage manager – Kenan Pulver; assistant stage manager – Hope Process
Cast: Jean, a woman – Catherine VanVooren; Gordon, a dead man; Mrs. Gottlieb, Gordon’s mother – Carolyn McGuire; Carlotta, Gordon’s mistress/The Stranger – Katie Falk; Dwight, Gordon’s brother – Travis Meyer; Hermia, Gordon’s wife – Hayley J. Maxwell; Cell Phone Ballet Angel – Michaela Kaiser
Running time: One hour, 47 minutes
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. April 15-16, 2 p.m. April 17
Catherine VanVooren has a naturalistic way with her performance as the foundation character, Jean. In a café, Jean is innocently eating what we later learn is lobster bisque when a man’s cell phone at a neighboring table chimes. The man doesn’t answer. The continuing sound of the cell phone annoys Jean, and she eventually picks it up and answers it. That sets the play in motion.
Jean learns the owner of the phone is Gordon. Jean quickly learns Gordon is dead at the table. Jean keeps his phone, and from that act she begins to build the life of Gordon in a trail that includes attending Gordon’s funeral, meeting his mistress, dining of sorts with his family, hearing a confession of his wife and traveling to Johannesburg, South Africa.
Two scenes in this production are especially delicious. One starts Act II. James Porras II unleashes a monologue as Gordon. Porras charges the scene with energy and quick shifts and nuance of voice and body as the picture of Gordon becomes complete as a manipulator with questionable morals. Also delicious is a meeting over cocktails with Gordon’s wife, whose tipsy tongue reveals her marital sexual behaviors. Hayley J. Maxwell flies as the wife, with VanVooren’s Jean fueling more openness with her big white lies.
The performance space is filled with surrealistic visuals. The stage floor is painted pale blue and white, giving the impression the characters are walking on a high, thin cloud. To the left of the audience are white umbrellas hanging as if on a coat tree. To the right, eight small three-dimensional white houses are suspended from a puppet-stick-like apparatus, which spins in one scene. At center rear hangs a human male figure made up of wound wire that’s suspended above the stage by guy wires that have light bulbs. To the rear of the stage, near an all-white backdrop, hang four mobiles that consist of see-through plastic rectangles of multiple solid colors. While the characters touch such everyday items as tables and chairs and eating utensils, their surroundings tell the audience the play is not fully of this world.
That description may give you an indication of some of the details in this production. Add the human element – one with flights of imagination – and Theatre on the Bay has something fascinating going.
NEXT: “Little Women: The Broadway Musical,” July 21-24, 29-31.
THE VENUE: The 362-seat Herbert L. Williams Theatre is located in the Fine Arts Building of the University of Wisconsin-Marinette. The facility was built in 1968. Central in the theater is a thrust stage, a half octagon that the audience surrounds. The theater includes brick walls on both sides of the stage and a white ceiling of half circles radiating from the stage, with the area above the stage exposed for the guts of the lighting grid. Three steps lead to the stage, which today bears the name The Nancy A. Gehrke Stage. The design of the stage was one of the first of its kind in the region. The theater feels spacious.
THE PEOPLE: Herbert L. Williams was professor of communication arts and artistic director of Theatre on the Bay. He retired after 30 years in May 1996 and continued to direct and perform in Green Bay and the Fox Cities. He may have directed more plays than anyone in the region. Herb Williams died in 2014 in Green Bay at age 79. A memorial service was held in the theater that bears his name. Nancy A. Gehrke acted for 40 years on the stage named for her. Today, painting is a primary passion.
You may email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV between 6 and 7:30 a.m. Sundays.