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Review: DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE at En Route Productions

So DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE. Let me begin by heaping praise on female playwright Sarah Ruhl for bringing us a quirky and lovable female lead, and a story dominated by female characters. Second, thank goodness for En Route productions and their two female artistic directors, one of whom also directed the show, the other whom also designed the set. Third, credit is due to this theatre company for incorporating their work into the visual arts landscape to give us a double dose of worthy culture in a city where having a sandwich at Micklethwaite Meats is possibly as close as some hipsters will get to art or theatre.

So first, the plot: Jean is having a bowl of lobster bisque in a restaurant in New York when her peace is interrupted by, you guessed it, the cell phone of a man who she discovers is dead. Rather than leave the situation for what it is, Jean answers the phone. She confiscates the device and finds herself concocting a story about the dead man she never knew as she navigates her way through various meetings with his lover, mother, wife, brother and in one climactic case, a work "colleague."

The quirky Jean, we can tell, is an OCD introvert. She gets attached to the dead man's family and phone, devising a fiction here and there about him, hoping to alleviate their pain in his death only to learn that Gordon Gottlieb, said dead man, has a melodramatic family and a questionable job. He is in fact fairly unredeemable. As the story progresses, Jean finds out just how much so, while simultaneously growing so attracted to his family that she's practically one of them by the play's end. This is the logical story line in front of a more quirky spiritual idea about fate and love that would give away a sweet conclusion. Ruhl strays from reality and the play grows surreal toward it's end, but despite its playfulness, Lindsay Doleshal's direction and a restrained performance by the cast help to balance this.

This cast is indeed perfectly restrained. It works well for both the play and the venue. One generally expects a certain kind of pre-show bustle around a production. Not so with this company. Upon entering the venue, one gets the feeling that there's no rush, no nerves on edge, no pretense. It feels as though we're getting to see something happening to people we don't yet know, rather than attending a play. And I mean that in praise. We're right there with this cast, literally and figuratively. There's a danger with characters like these and a venue like this to overplay, but not one actor crossed that line.

Bridget Farr as Jean uses every movement to convey an intention, and is so fascinating to watch I had to be careful not to miss the plot. Her dialect, and the dialect of others, was so nicely done (thanks Ev Lunning for such great coaching here) that my wife, a recovering Jew, felt almost at home. Ann Hulsman brings an intensity and realism to her role as the deceased's mother Harriet. Emily Rankin is hilarious as Carlotta and may have, along with Farr, provided my favorite most equally calibrated and funny scene in the play. Just when I was already enjoying three strong women playing three great roles Lara Wright shows up as Hermia, Gordon's wife, adding just the right balance to a character who is simultaneously cold and approachable. Dan Dalbout (Dwight) gives us an earnest nerd. To his credit, Dan gives us a performance that is not so much restrained, but "boxed-in," not unlike Dwight himself. Maeson Wiley, plays the antagonist dead man Gordon with such grit and easy determination, I was almost unsure of why Jean should care for him at all. One note to consider in this otherwise solid show: those of us stage right didn't get much love during Gordon's monologue, and had some trouble hearing him.

Two other characters to note in this show include the DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE and Ia Instera's modular, no nonsense set. The cell phone, an annoying interruption when accompanied by even the best of ring tones, in this show, is outfitted with a damn near repellant ring. And Ia's set, a beautiful piece of art, could put the modular aesthetic of IKEA to shame. Chairs turn into sofas and pulpits while cardboard boxes turn into functional art at her hands. And it all looks like it belongs in the Springdale station.

Written in 2008, it seems now, eight years later, that Sarah Ruhl's quirky comedy is a strange, eclectic statement of how the very cell phone we claim is pulling us apart, can bring us together. In the case of DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE, fate has a little hand in things as well. Charming and well executed, DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE is a delight.


Springdale Station, 979 Springdale Rd.

Jan. 15 & 22, 1:30pm only: Link & Pin Art Gallery, 2235 E. Sixth #102

Through Jan. 29

Running time: 1 hr., 55 min.

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