Better off dead

Published: Friday, January 11, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 9, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

Eldon Phelps is a loser. He's got no job, no money, no girlfriend and no prospects. So, he agrees to die on prime-time television as part of a new reality TV show, hoping that in death his life might at least have some meaning.

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Tim Altmeyer center, poses with Libby Arnold, left, and Nell Page in a scene from "The Dead Guy" at the Hippodrome State Threatre.

Aaron Daye/The Gainesville Sun


The Dead Guy

  • What: Satirical comedy about a TV contestant who receives $1 million for his death to be televised.

  • When: Friday through Feb. 3, 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; preview performance at 7:30 p.m. tonight.

  • Where: Hippodrome State Theatre, 25 SE 2nd Place.

  • Tickets: $25-$30, $20 seniors, $10 students; $15 tonight's preview. (375-4477)

The catch? He's got one week to spend $1 million in any way he wants, all in front of a camera, but at the end of it he is contractually obligated to die.

"The Dead Guy," a play that opens Friday at the Hippodrome State Theatre, tomorrow, follows Phelps as he spends his million and begins to question the fate he has signed up for. It is a dark, funny, cynical look at so-called reality TV and the lengths that people will go to for fame.

"It's a dark theme handled with comedic gloves," says director Lauren Caldwell. "We're able to laugh at the whole reality TV phenomenon; we're able to laugh at death."

The play ends up being more of a parable about the whole culture surrounding reality shows - ratings-hungry producers, the seemingly endless line of people willing to humiliate themselves on television and the audiences that tune in (and feed the whole process with ad revenue).

Tim Altmeyer, who plays the title character, Eldon Phelps, says that although the play takes reality TV to the extreme, it speaks honestly truth about the role these shows play in our society and ultimately doesn't veer too far from, well, reality.

"It's about us - who we are right now as a consumer culture," he says. "Reality shows do go to a certain place that is not that far from where this goes. We laugh at it, but we also recognize ourselves in it."

The play is staged in such a way as to heighten the sense of being at home watching TV for the audience.

The character of Dougie, played by Michael T. Toth, follows the other characters around the stage with a camera connected to several screens plastered around the room, while still other screens flash pictures and random assortments of attention grabbers. Thus, the play is happening in real time and on a TV screen.

"The audience will be challenged by what they want to look at," Caldwell says. "We're being very careful in our technology."

Caldwell says that the presence of a television screen on stage allows the audience to detach from what happens to Eldon in the same way people do when watching actual TV shows.

"The tragedy is on the screen," she says. "Because that's where we're used to looking at tragedy, not right in front of us."

Of course, the play isn't all tragedy - reality TV, after all, is very easy to make fun of.

"The show does possess a heightened absurdity to it," Caldwell admits.

And Altmeyer says he greatly enjoys playing up the absurdity inherent in a booze-addled, pot-smoking slacker from the sticks.

"He lacks a certain amount of what we would call intelligence," Altmeyer says of his character. "There is a cartoon aspect about the role."

For her part, Caldwell believes the play is strong enough to survive the test of time, but she hopes reality TV will not follow it.

"Right now, it's a very potent play," she says. "But I hope in 10 years from now it's a period piece."

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