Stranger on the line

Sarah Ruhl's 'Dead Man's Cell Phone' premieres at the Hippdrome on Friday


"Dead Man's Cell Phone" features, from top, Teniece Divya Johnson as Other Women, Jessica Ires Morris as Hermia; middle, Sara Morsey as Mother, Matthew Lindsay as Dwight; and bottom, Tim Altmeyer as Gordon and Nichole Hamilton as Jean, at the Hippodrome State Theatre beginning Friday.

Rob C. Witzel/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 11:57 a.m.

I think there's a dead man sitting next to me."

Facts

"Dead Man's Cell Phone"

What: Sarah Ruhl's film noirish comedy about a woman who answer's a dead man's ringing phone in a restaurant.
When: Opens Friday with preview performance at 8 p.m. today; showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Jan. 31.
Where: Hippodrome State Theatre, 25 S.E. Second Place, Gainesville.
Tickets: $25-$30, $12 students, $20 seniors; $12 and $15 for tonight's preview..
Info: 375-4477 or www.thehipp.org.

A non-descript woman, sitting in a cafe, utters these words into a cell phone. It belongs to the stiff man at the table beside her. Soon sirens start to blare in a distance and the young woman leaves the restaurant - taking the dead man's cell with her.

The woman is Jean. The deceased is Gordon. And Jean's random decision to take Gordon's phone is the start of a wild, weird and witty misadventure in the Hippodrome's 2010 opener, "Dead Man's Cell Phone." The play, written by Sarah Ruhl, runs through Jan. 31. Ruhl also wrote "Eurydice," which was performed last year at the theater. Artistic Director Lauren Caldwell said Ruhl is the hot, new contemporary playwright in theater now. Directors and actors as well as audiences are attracted to her pieces, which are flavored with imaginative scenes and dark humor.

"It's kind of like the (Royal) Tenenbaums meets the girls from the 'Sex in the City' and then they go into the 'Twilight Zone,'" Caldwell said. "It's got nice, warm themes to it about love and the commitment that we need to make in terms of loving people for who they are, but then it's also got this bizarre, skewed humor to it, too."

Just by answering Gordon's phone calls, Jean begins to learn about Gordon's quirky family life, mysterious "toxic" job and eventually finds herself living inside the life of a stranger. She gets to know Gordon's judgmental and eccentric mother Mrs. Gottlieb and his joyless wife Hermia, portrayed by Sara Morsey and Jessica Ires Morris respectively. Jean encounters his flashy, spandex-wearing mistress, played by Teniece Divya Johnson. Matthew Lindsay takes on the role of Gordon's brother, Dwight, an awkward man who seemed to love his brother but didn't like him. Jean made the choice to never have a cell phone but can't manage to put Gordon's down.

"Dead Man's Cell Phone" is a highly conceptual piece pulsating with contemporary themes and styles, set against the backdrop of a modern, super-sleek set with clean lines and monochromatic colors. The set, lighting, sound and costumes designs are as much in the spotlight as the actors.

"The set has been great to play with and to play on and figure out how it connects everybody and how it separates everything," said Morris, who has performed in numerous productions in New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles and Louisville, Ky. "I feel like it's been its own character."

Caldwell sees the story as an introspective look at the isolation of technology and how, in a Tiger Woods world, humans must respect the powers of it, too. Tim Altmeyer, Gordon's portrayer, said being in the play just reinforced his love-hate relationship with mobile devices. They are incredibly convenient, Altmeyer said, but we are slaves to them.

"I think what's cool about this particular story, the way Sarah Ruhl tells it and the way Laura tells it along with her, is that it's a story that can only be told in the theater," said Altmeyer, an assistant professor at the University of Florida who has appeared on Broadway in "Salome" with Al Pacino. "Its home is in a live theater experience, not in front of the television or at the movies, but in a live space. It's larger than life and as a result, sometimes it's like truth sort of crystallized."

Nichole Hamilton, who plays Jean, also enjoys the feel and format of the play.

"I don't think I've done anything this highly conceptual and it's very exciting," said Hamilton, who said she's become much more aware of people's cell phone conversation and etiquette. "It's definitely not a kitchen sink drama."

Caldwell said Ruhl's scripts provide a solid foundation for the story, but also allows for creative freedom.

"She respects the artists' imagination and the input of your own imprint on the piece, so she's very exciting in that respect," Caldwell explained. "She gives you the basics, but she begs you to flavor it the way you and your company would like to do. There's something very freeing about performing her work."

Johnson and Hamilton are both Masters of Fine Arts students at UF. Since school provides them lessons in structure and technique, they enjoyed the flexibility and freedom of the production.

"Working with Laura, it was a different experience in that she had an idea of what she wanted, but she allowed you to play," said Johnson, who recently made her Hipp debut with "A Christmas Carol." "I didn't know professional work could be this fun."

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