Wednesday, April 15, 2009

ArtsBuzz:'Dead Man's Cell Phone' at nexus of technology, love

Natasha Sherritt in Sarah Ruhl's play, Dead Man's Cell Phone.


By Hap Erstein

When Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival producer-director Kermit Christman went looking for a contemporary play for the company’s spring show at the Eissey Campus Theater in Palm Beach Gardens, he relied on technology to do the search.

“I sat down and went to Google,” he said, looking for a new play from London or New York.

Suddenly, a title popped up -- Dead Man’s Cell Phone.

Whether or not Sarah Ruhl’s offbeat comedy, about a woman who takes possession of a mobile phone when its male owner slumps over dead at the table next to her in a café, has paid Google to get priority-results display, Dead Man’s Cell Phone has become a popular play choice at theaters across the nation.

The Palm Beach Shakespeare production opens Thursday for a brief four-day run through Sunday.

Recalling his initial reaction to the script, Christman says, “I thought this could be very interesting, because it is grounded in its own reality. Like at the beginning, when she receives the phone call, it reminded me a little of Alfred Hitchcock. Then I read on and it starts to go farther and farther out, I thought, ‘This will be risky, because we could run the risk of the audience not knowing where it’s going.’ ”

Dead Man’s Cell Phone is nothing if not unconventional. In addition, some have called its message profound. Christman is not quite ready to go that far.

“What I saw in the play is the theme of technology -- the cellphone meets the human heart,” he explains. “But that’s a theme that we already know. It was already explored 25, 30, 40 years ago in science fiction. But how does she handle the way these people take leave of themselves to find, ultimately, love?

"I think she’s saying, ‘Put down the cellphone, release your grip on technology and take hold of someone you love, because this is the true meaning of things.’ ”

In the central role of cellphone caretaker Jean, Christman has cast model-turned-actress Natasha Sherritt, who has been in a few recent Shakespeare Festival productions. Audiences will probably also recognize Margot Hartman Tenney, in the featured role of the dead man’s haughty mother.

“I called up Margot and said, ‘I found this play and there’s this crotchety old woman in it’,” recalls Christman. “She said, ‘Oh, you must be thinking of me.’ ”

Perhaps the most intriguing directorial touch is a collaboration with Ballet Florida. In the middle of the script, playwright Ruhl calls for “a cellphone ballet.”

“It’s described as actors walking across the stage, talking on cellphones, carry umbrellas,” says Christman. “I certainly didn’t want to do that.” Instead, he wanted a true modern ballet and got one by calling up Ballet Florida and talking to one of the staff choreographers, Jerry Opdenaker. “I said, ‘This is a story about love, so give me a two-minute ballet pas de deux, using the umbrellas. And I want both dancers to be naked.’ ”

Oh, that Kermit. Opdenaker suggested flesh-colored costumes instead, but the dance that he created should steam up your glasses nevertheless.

Even if it weren’t for the sensual dance interlude, the selection of Dead Man’s Cell Phone seems like a blatant attempt to reach out to a younger, hipper audience. “That’s exactly what we are trying to do,” concedes Christman, “to take a bold step and reach out to the young people the same way that Shakespeare successfully had.”

He notes that at $20 and $25, the company has some of the lowest ticket prices for theater around. And as has been Palm Beach Shakespeare’s tradition for its 19 years of existence, it will be producing one of the Bard’s plays -- A Midsummer Night’s Dream -- free of charge this summer, beginning July 16.

Kevin Crawford and Daniel Gordon will be co-directing that production, which Christman describes as “a bit of an homage to the 1991 production, in our second year, that really put us on the map.”

The summer production will be the company’s first show in the brand-new
Seabreeze Amphitheatre in Jupiter's Carlin Park
. The long-in-the-works theater shell will be officially dedicated at 10 a.m. Saturday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“There’s added comfort for the actors backstage, with real dressing rooms,” says Christman. “And the floor of the stage is a gorgeous wood, Brazilian teak.”

Christman sounds a little taken aback that Palm Beach Shakespeare is approaching its third decade, but says the company is doing fine financially. “We’re going to have to be very, very clever as foxes, with everything that’s going on,” he says, but the company is moving forward, thanks to its perennial sponsors and to the county.

And to Google.

DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE, Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival, Palm Beach Community College Eissey Campus Theatre, 11051 Campus Drive, Palm Beach Gardens. 8 pm Thursday and Friday, 2 pm and 8 pm Saturday, 2 pm Sunday. Tickets: $20-$25. Call: (561) 207-5900.

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