A cell phone loudly beeped from the audience on the opening night of Santa Barbara City College Theatre Group’s production of Dead Man’s Cell, Sarah Ruhl’s play about a woman who inherits a dead stranger’s cell phone. At any other show, this would be an intrusion, but here it rang eerily true. Ruhl’s is a cautionary techno-tale where worlds collide and the lines between self and cellphone, private and public, life and afterlife, become confused. Director Katie Laris and scenic and lighting designer Francois-Pierre Couture frame this metaphysical comedy in simple ghostly white curtains, through which shades of blue and pink shine ethereal tones onto the play’s earthly settings. Sound designer Barbara Hirsch stitches it with cell phone noise, threading in and out like disembodied spirits.
The dreamy set up is a nice choice for the poetic dialogue, which features some theological reckoning in its techno critiques. It’s a send-up of not just the technologies that tether us, but the memories we attach to them, the remains of life that, like phones, keep us halfway present and halfway elsewhere. One wonders what the play might have been like if written a few years later in the age of Facebook memorials.
In Friday’s opening night show, the cast and crew worked through a slightly sleepy first half to deliver an overall excellent performance, the kind where each actor seems made for their role. Jenn Scanlon played a great Jean, nailing the tenderness and cautious energy of a well-meaning woman swept up in sudden and bizarre circumstances. Brian Harwell plays Gordon with enough electric intensity and charisma to shift whole atmospheres — the audience erupted after his debuting monologue. Kathy Marden was scary funny as the dead Gordon’s overbearing mother, Croatian star Leona Paraminski was commanding and graceful as the femme fatale Carlotta, and Shannon Saleh earned big laughs as a wildly drunk widow. If I had to pick a favorite, it may have been Justin Stark as the sweet and awkward Dwight, whose little stammers and forced smiles were uncannily funny. But the whole cast was grand and a privilege to behold.
Though some may find Ruhl’s pleas for deeper connectedness a little quaint in this day and age, Friday’s cell phone interruption suggests maybe not much has changed. Even in a play against cell phones, we can’t help but hear them distractedly going off. So if you want some heady and topical laughs, tear yourself from your device and make your way to SBCC for the call of comedy — just don’t forget to turn the phone off.
411: SBCC’s Theatre Group present Dead Man’s Cell Phone through Saturday, May 2. For more information or tickets, call (805) 965-5935 or see theatregroupsbcc.com.