Theater Company opens season with 'Dead Man's Cell Phone'

The Sarah Ruhl play will run from Oct. 9 to 12 at Laurie Theater

Photo/Mike Lovett

Associate Professor of Theater Arts Adrianne Krstansky.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of State of the Arts magazine. “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is the opening show of the Brandeis Theater Company’s 2014-15 season, running from Oct. 9 to 12 at the Laurie Theater at Spingold Theater Center. Ticket prices range from $5 to $20. The full schedule for the season can be found on the company’s website.

Associate Professor of Theater Arts Adrianne Krstansky likes plays with magic. The kind of magic that comes from reaching into the deepest, darkest places, finding your true voice and letting it fly. As my teacher at Brandeis, Krstansky guided us through huge exquisite messes, intimate stories and collective creativity. She likes plays that stimulate collaboration, with deep moral questions for both the actors and the audience. And she especially loves a play with death and love wrapped into one.

This fall, she will direct Brandeis undergraduate actors in “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” by Sarah Ruhl, who writes with a delicate magic that can feel as easy as breathing.

The brilliance of Ruhl’s celebrated body of work — spare and often surreal language that is rich in imagery — is also challenging to put onstage. Krstansky and her actors will grapple with many technical, theatrical and moral questions, including nearly impossible stage directions. I asked Krstansky why she chose this play to open the Brandeis Theater Company season.

When Viktoria Lange ’13 directed Ruhl’s ‘Eurydice’ as her senior thesis, I saw that Ruhl’s smart, imaginative, big-hearted characters fit really well with the Brandeis students,” she says. “They’re able to get her quirky text so organically.” 

“Quirky” is one way to describe Ruhl’s text. Her stage directions are like short poems: 

Mrs. Gottlieb walks off with determination.

She might sing a reprise of “You’ll Never Walk Alone."

She throws herself into the flames with the steak and self-immolates, but we don’t need to hear or see that. 

“I love Ruhl’s implicit apology: ‘I’m sorry, here’s what I know … here’s what I’ve tried,’” says Krstansky. “I can’t figure this out in a room by myself. The people onstage that are saying the words and adopting the spirit, they know more, because they’re in it. I can help translate, and together we’ll know what the honest answer is.”

Both of the play’s main characters are involved in deceit, to the benefit of those on the receiving end. Gordon (the titular dead man) sells human organs. And Jean (who finds his cell phone) makes up completely false but very nice things about Gordon to tell his family and friends. As a playwright, I see this parallel structure as part of Ruhl’s strategy to connect her characters, whether or not they exist in the same time or space.

“It’s also the moral and ethical question of the play,” says Krstansky. The black market for organs is a “subterranean” aspect of the story, but one that informs everything. She illustrates with questions. Is it wrong for Jean to lie if it helps Gordon’s family find peace? Are Jean and Gordon guilty of the same crime? And is it so bad to fill in the lost pieces ― real or metaphorical ― for somebody?

Rehearsals haven’t begun, but Krstansky speaks of the production with such specificity, and with such care, it is as if she is collecting pieces of a broken painting that have scattered across a floor. Each phrase blossoms into a complete sensory experience. (Not dissimilar, I notice, from Sarah Ruhl’s own compositions.) 

The image that keeps coming up for me is from the film ‘Wings of Desire.’ It’s in a city, it’s dirty and crowded. There are angels sitting on chandeliers and on banisters. It’s gorgeous. It’s muted. It’s black and white. You don’t actually hear the noises of the city. You hear strange ethereal music. Occasional street sounds.”

Similarly, the settings of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” are familiar ― a café, an airport ― but something is off, something is strange. Nobody works at the café. There’s a big fight at the airport and no one does anything. These aren’t real spaces. They are imaginative spaces, like a Grimm’s fairy tale with an ethical question … like a very weird children’s book.”

As her cast members find their way into the movement and voices of Ruhl’s characters, I imagine the world of the play will unfold in all its many textures and colors and sounds, just as Krstansky’s vision has so far, with thoughtfulness, passion and curiosity.  

Molly Haas-Hooven ’09 (Theater Arts) is a Brooklyn-based playwright. She earned an MFA from the New School for Drama and teaches creative writing at Writopia Lab in New York City. Her plays include “Die Kleinen” (semifinalist, 2014 O’Neill Playwrights Conference).  

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