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Busy Signals

AE_event_DeadManCellPhoneOur obsessions with cell phones becomes evident in new play
Gerry Gerringer, artistic director of Actors’ Theatre, is kicking off the company’s 26th season with a play you’ve probably never heard of. “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” may not have the theatrical history of a Shakespeare comedy, but it’s the perfect example of what’s hot right now in contemporary playwriting.

Sarah Ruhl, who was nominated for a 2010 Tony award for her play “In the Next Room,” wrote this new dark comedy, which revolves around Jean (Julia Cunningham), a woman who answers a stranger’s phone when it won’t stop ringing, only to find out that the man is dead. Rather than seek medical assistance for him, Jean gets herself entangled in his dysfunctional relationships with his alienated widow, his commanding mother and his mysterious mistress, and even falls in love with his lonely brother.

“It’s so different from everything you’ve seen,” says Santa Cruz actress April Green, who plays the widow of the deceased. “Ruhl weaves deadpan seriousness with hilariousness.”

Gerringer was inspired by Ruhl’s playwriting last year, when he directed her 2005 Pulitzer finalist, “The Clean House,” about a Brazilian cleaning woman who aspires to be a standup comedian. Like “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” it layers profundity with eccentricity and caters to the modern-day theatergoer’s thirst for shock value.

“I love dark comedies like these with tight, concise dialogue that surprises you,” says Gerringer. “This is not a Woody Allen comedy where you can see the joke coming from three lines ahead; Ruhl comes out of left field.”

With a simple set to include nine drop-down sheets of fabric representing the various locations in which the drama unfolds and some back lighting, Gerringer will rely on his six actors and the biting dialogue to do all the work. Considering Ruhl inserts very little stage direction into her dramas and through omission leaves them open for interpretation, the actors get to decide how they will be performed.

“It’s a play you can play with,” says Green, who appreciates the opportunity to experiment with the script, rather than follow it precisely as in traditional theater. “The words can be read many different ways and Ruhl layers in one thematic subtext after another.”

One of the central motifs, according to Gerringer, is the idea that the more people are connected technologically, the more they are disconnected in their relationships with others. As long as your cell phone is in your pocket, you are both present and absent at the same time.

In an age where ringtones have become the soundtrack to our lives, our over-reliance on iPhones and BlackBerrys serves as the perfect punch-line for Ruhl’s play, which premiered just three years ago at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington D.C.

We’re on our cell phones all the time,” says Gerringer. “It speaks to our society’s infatuation with technology while we gradually lose our ability to connect with one another in tangible, personal ways.”

Green would argue, however, that the relationships of the play’s lead female protagonists are what drive the plot.

Though the drama does some analyzing of the female psyche and our obsession with technology, it wouldn’t be a play by Ruhl without quirky observation, a blurred line between the everyday and the surreal and knee-slapping one-liners.

“No humor resonates like truthful humor,” says Gerringer, recalling a scene in which a cell phone ironically goes off during the dead man’s funeral. “He’s the funniest dead guy to ever be seen on stage.”


“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” runs Sept. 17 through Oct. 10 at 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets may be purchased at brownpapertickets.com or by calling 425-PLAY.
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