REVIEW: BLT’s ‘Dead Man’s Cell Phone’ Will Leave You Thinking
by Shelli Park
“He’d make a lovely corpse.” – Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens
And he does. Gordon (Kevin Finney), a man sitting in a non-descript café, has just passed away over a bowl of soup. He remains in a position of calm contemplation, very convincing as a corpse.
A restless young woman, Jean (Sascha Streckel), sits at a table not too far from Gordon, caught up in seemingly frustrating writing activity.
Gordon’s cell phone rings. And rings. And rings again.
Jean’s irritation at the unanswered ringing mounts until she explodes into full confrontation with the owner of the phone, a dead Gordon.
Finney is a great dead man. I sat on the left side of the stage, and had a three-quarter view of Finney from behind. His ability to avoid reacting to all of Streckel’s almost manic activity is very convincing, almost eerie, and very entertaining.
The story unfolds as Jean answers Gordon’s formerly irritating phone, which rings again, and becomes intimately involved in his now former life.
Death is a mask onto which Jean projects her version of Gordon. She takes on the mission of keeping Gordon alive through her guardianship of Gordon’s phone.
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” by Sarah Ruhl, presented by Burien Little Theatre, and skillfully directed by Maggie Larrick, poses many questions to be considered in this day of constant digital communication. Ruhl is interested in the interplay of identity, faith, communication, truth, and love, to name a few themes she touches on in this thoughtfully written comedy.
In this digital age, with constant messaging, do we still mean what we say? Do our words still carry weight when they are so quickly lost? When we say “I love you” so often, and in quick texts, what does that love mean? We jot our thoughts down on paper less often, resorting to sending digital messages which are quickly deleted, or lost when a phone dies, or a computer crashes. Paper has substance, and a life of its own. What life does digital communication have?
Digital messages. Think about the digital pathways of all of this communication passing back and forth all around us, and through us.
There is a great scene towards the end where Gordon and Jean, both dead in some other place outside of the reality of the living, are listening to the dance of cell phone communications, the only communication that reaches them through the ether.
Streckel is funny as the directionless do-gooder, Jean. She is full of expression, facial, and physical, which seem a bit exaggerated at the opening of the play, but which are tempered and became very effective as the story develops. They are a vital part of her character. The question looms, is she really doing good in inserting herself into the lives of Gordon’s surviving family members in order to bring comfort in their time of loss, or is Jean creating a role for herself. Is she simply trying to create meaning in her own life? One could extrapolate that Jean didn’t have much of a life before Gordon.
Fortunately, Jean’s meddling brings resolution to the lives of each of the characters.
Gordon’s mother, Mrs. Gottlieb, wonderfully interpreted by Connie Murray, is a force to be reckoned with. She is a domineering and dramatic mother. She is very self-absorbed. Murray excels as the stiff-upper lipped matron, with the right amount of humanity to soften the edges. As she compares Jean to “a very small casserole”, you see that she can be touched, though she still holds herself above the rest of the world. The sun rises and sets on her favorite son Gordon.
Gordon’s brother, Dwight, is a sweet, unassuming, but intelligent man who takes more than his share of hits from Mother. He isn’t completely spineless, however. Dwight is played by Gaelen J. Poage, a capable actor who would benefit from pushing himself out of his comfortable, go-to physical expressions. He needs to dig deep in future roles. Poage is very good at playing the sensitive underdog. I remember him from “reasons to be pretty” in which he played Greg, a similar type of character. Poage has talent, and his ability to connect with Streckel and create a feeling of real intimacy onstage is admirable.
Hermia is Gordon’s widow. Brynne Garman is a very funny woman. She plays a good lush, and has solid presence on stage. Garman is fearless in her rendering of a formerly unhappily married woman who regrets the last ten years, suppressing every ounce of vulnerability in order to stay sane in an insane family.
Anna Richardson plays two characters in this production, The Other Woman and The Stranger. As The Other Woman, I’m not sure if she was trying to be a convincing seductress, or trying to be a woman who is trying to be a convincing seductress. Either way, the scene she plays with Jean is funny. She is a strong character-actor, but needs to reign it in a bit in order to not allow her characters to become caricatures.
I really enjoyed Finney’s interpretation of Gordon. He made a number of mistakes, forgetting lines, or mixing them up. Fortunately, his performance is strong enough to overcome. He plays his role in such a way that you can feel empathy for a character who might not otherwise earn it. He expostulates many of the plays moral and metaphysical questions. His death has given him new perspectives and some insight without changing his character completely. Gordon talks of morality being measured by results, rather than by one’s initial actions being judged right or wrong. Is Jean really any different from Gordon, whose livelihood brings the question of morality front and center? Is there ever a good lie? What is truth? He plays a bit of a narrator, as the dead center of the plays action.
There is one point in the play where Gordon describes an image of the streets of New York where the sidewalks are so packed that one umbrella protects three bodies, so it is alright if you forget your umbrella one day. It was brought up again in conversation with Jean, then the image is nicely carried through action by Tamsyn Kine’s choreography performed by the ensemble (Tamsyn Kine, Sarah Merry, and Lauren Scoville). The choreography brings a third dimension to the metaphysical and digital airwaves, though it was slightly distracting in the stationary store scene, and not fully effective throughout.
The set was minimal and functional. With so much to think about with the dialogue, Director Larrick and Set Designer Steve Cooper made a good decision to keep things simple. This is also helpful because the action takes place in multiple locations.
The soundtrack set a really nice tone. The atmospheric music before the show, and at intermission created an eerie and mysterious tone. This feels appropriate for the abstract nature of the moral and metaphysical questions. The songs chosen for between the scenes, created and accentuated, the sense of melancholy and loss the pervades the action. I really appreciated Antonio Juan Fernandez de Cossio’s sound design. The execution was a bit choppy in a couple of areas, but the overall effect created appropriate atmosphere and connected each scene together. My favorite moment was near the end when a jazz song played with the lyrics, “I’ve lived without you for awhile…”
I left the theatre thinking about the questions that Ruhl is posing. I left with what I think is the most important part of an entertaining comedy that is written as a vehicle for a serious message. I was left with the message.
Here are some photos from the production courtesy Mike Wilson:
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This show is suitable for ages 13+ due to a little adult language and adult content.
Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $7 through $20, with a number of discounts available, particularly on the first weekend of the production.
TICKET PRICES AND PACKAGES
Online Ticket Prices: Purchase online for savings early in the run of Dead Man’s Cell Phone.
- First Weekend: $18.00/$15.00
- Second Weekend: $19.00/$16.00
- Remaining Weekends: $20.00/$17.00
Tickets at the Box Office:
General Senior/Student :
- All Shows: $20.00/$17.00
DINNER AND A SHOW
The Dinner & Show Package includes a two-course meal with ticket to the show for $35, and can be purchased through the Mark Restaurant and Bar, 206-241-6275.
All deals and discounts are exclusive of each other.
For tickets or information, go online to www.burienlittletheatre.org or call the ticket office at 206-242-5180.
Under the stage direction of Maggie Larrick, the show features the diverse acting talents of Kevin Finney (Gordon), Brynne Garman (Hermia), Tamsyn Kine (Understudy/Ensemble), Sarah Merry (Ensemble), Connie Murray (Mrs. Gottlieb), Gaelen J. Poage (Dwight), Lauren Scoville (Ensemble) and Sascha Streckel (Jean).
ABOUT BURIEN LITTLE THEATRE
Exciting live theater has been a tradition in Burien since 1955. Incorporated in 1980, Burien Little Theatre (BLT) has been a leading producer of quality live theater serving residents of the Seattle and south Puget Sound areas.
Burien Little Theatre is committed to being an entertainment leader by producing intriguing professional shows. The company’s mission is to treat audiences to productions of the highest artistic integrity that excite, engage and involve both the local and expanding theatrical communities in the Puget Sound region.
BLT is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) entity and operates on revenue from ticket sales, donations, grants, sponsorships and volunteers.
SCHEDULE FOR “DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE:
- Oct. 5 at 8:00 p.m. – Friday
- Oct. 6 at 8:00 p.m. – Saturday
- Oct. 7 at 2:00 p.m. – Sunday
- Oct. 12 at 8:00 p.m. – Friday
- Oct. 13 at 8:00 p.m. – Saturday
- Oct. 14 at 2:00 p.m. – Sunday
- Oct. 19 at 8:00 p.m. – Friday
- Oct. 20 at 8:00 p.m. – Saturday
- Oct. 21 at 2:00 p.m. – Sunday
Burien Little Theatre is located at 14501 4th Ave SW in Burien, at the intersection of 4th Ave SW and SW 146th St.; parking lot entrance is on 4th. Directions available under “Find Us” at www.burienlittletheatre.org; or call (206) 242-5180.