Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Feb 25, 2014
04:16 PM
Stage Write

Three Surprising Things: MTG's 'Dead Man's Cell Phone'

PHOTO COURTESY OF MADISON THEATRE GUILD

You'll understand why theater companies ask you to turn off your cell phones after watching Madison Theatre Guild production of 'Dead Man's Cell Phone.' 

One of the greatest things about live local theater is its power to surprise us, to defy our expectations and shake our sense of what we think we know. That said, sometimes it’s not a bad idea to have at least a little sense of what you’re getting into when the lights go down.

That’s especially true of Madison Theatre Guild’s production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone, playwright Sarah Ruhl’s comic romance about modern technology and relationships. Stage Write caught up with Sarah Karon, who’ll play Jean, the woman who comes into possession of the titular phone, and finds she can’t stop answering it.

1. The play could easily feel dated, but it really doesn’t.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone debuted off-Broadway in 2007, almost seven years ago. Technology has come an awfully long way since then, but Ruhl’s observations about the ways technology, and in particular the cell phone, both connects and disconnects us have only gotten sharper in the ensuing years.

One of the cultural touchstones Ruhl used when writing the play was the prints and paintings of Edward Hopper, who was frequently inspired by images of women sitting isolated within their environments, lonely in the face of modernity. Karon says there are several moments in the play that echo Hopper’s work.

“It’s definitely a play about a subject most of us have a connection to,” quips Karon.

2. Excuse me, who am I talking to?

Karon calls Jean one of the more challenging roles she’s tackled, in part because the character has so many lines (and an extensive monologue), and also because of something else.

“It’s difficult for anyone to sell the idea that you’re on the phone with someone,” says Karon, whose character spends a lot of time talking with people who aren’t on stage. “Especially when you’re also needing to respond to the needs and pacing of the scene. The cell phone is attached to Jean. In some ways, it’s her only connection to everyone else in the play.”

Apparently, the cast and crew experienced a similar phenomenon with the fifteen or so prop cell phones that floated around the set during production. “Someone was always asking for the phone,” she laughs.

3. The cast had their very own existential moment.

As Karon tells it, the cast members were sitting backstage during an early rehearsal when it hit them:

“We all realized we were playing around on our cell phones rather than getting to know each other,” she says. “It was kind of an aha moment. We sort of collectively thought, ‘Maybe I can stand up and put down my phone for a minute.'”

Dead Man’s Cell Phone runs February 28–March 15 at the Bartell Theatre. For ticket information, click here.

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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