Stage Review: Dead Man’s Cell Phone – no more than three bars

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The irony didn’t escape me as I sat in the Telus Studio Theatre at UBC Tuesday night watching The Dead Man’s Cell Phone, a metaphysical study on death, dying and love.  And while I pondered the fact that my Rogers phone didn’t work in this Telus sponsored venue (before the show started, of course), I did find myself wishing that irony had spilled over into the play itself.  Instead, as I left the theatre in search of those elusive bars, I felt unfulfilled from this modern-day parable about our desire to connect and the technology that sometimes gets in the way.

Jean (Tich Wilson) is enjoying the last bowl of lobster bisque in a local café.  Seated at another table, Gordon Gotlieb’s (Andrew James Cohen) cell phone rings incessantly to the point of annoyance.  Finally realizing the reason the phone goes unanswered is because Gordon is dead, Jean answers it herself and find herself drawn into the dead man’s unusual family, his strange occupation and even to what I can only describe as playwright Sarah Ruhl’s version of an astral plane.

There are some fine acting among the cast here including some wonderful moments between Jean and Dwight (David A Kaye).  But more often than not these little moments were lost as the odd got odder in Sarah Ruhl’s script.

Dead Man's Cell Phone
Tich Wilson & David A. Kaye in the Theatre UBC production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone.  Photo by Tim Matheson

Director Chris McGregor’s decision to do the show in the round may have been a natural one for the Telus Studio Theatre due to its layout, it did create its own problems for actors at various times.  I can’t help but think the connection I had with Jean and Dwight may have not occurred had the bulk of their wonderful scene in the stationary store been with their backs to me.

Lighting and projection designer Wladimiro Woyno helped define the various scenes with simple floor projections that took Mandi Lau’s simple set pieces to the next level.

In researching playwright Ruhl, I searched for some explanation as to the genre in which she places her story and her characters.  Variously I found descriptions that included “magical realism”, “whimsy”, “romantic fantasy”, “absurdist” and even “semi-surrealist melodrama”.  I think this is where I had the most difficulty, and part of the reason why I chose “metaphysical” and “modern-day parable” as my own descriptors.  But even now, I am still unconvinced my own description captures the real essence of this play.

But maybe that’s the point?  Is Ruhl creating a world that defies description to force us to ask questions?  One that defies a tangible and easy description in this intangible and complicated world we live in?  If that is the case, she definitely succeeded but beyond that, very little else of Dead Man’s Cell Phone registered more than three bars for me.

3 Out of 5 Stars Dead Man’s Cell Phone
Theatre UBC
20 – 29 January 2011

By Sarah Ruhl.  Directed by Chris McGregor.  A Theatre at UBC presentation.  On stage at the Telus Studio Theatre through January 29, 2011.

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