By Sam Roschewsk
What do you get when you mix black-market organ sellers, a dead man in a café, and lobster bisque? The answer might surprise you. This past Friday, Feb. 20, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, written by award-winning Sarah Ruhl and directed by Alice Stites ’17, went up in the Horn Gallery. Stites’s directing and intriguing character interpretation brought the mysterious and poetic script to life. Due to the Horn’s intimate setting, the audience truly felt as if they were part of the strange film noir-esque world of the play.
Stites’s show was distinct because it was realized outside of the usual campus theater groups such as Brave Potato or StageFemmes. She applied independently for funding through the Horn Gallery Theater Grant, the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services (ODADAS), which provides funding to students to put on non-alcoholic events, and Fun Funds, which provides funding for non-alcoholic events open to the whole campus. This play was something Stites was passionate about and wanted to share with the Kenyon community. “The first time I read it, I just fell in love with it and couldn’t get it out of my head,” Stites said, “and I knew I wanted to bring it to life.” Her dedication to and love of the play showed in the performance itself, and that was truly what brought the show to life. She clearly spent time analyzing the play and working to understand the characters in the show, and she showed an appreciation and for Sarah Ruhl as a playwright, and worked to bring her prose to life.
The set design and overall feel of the play were particularly striking. The Horn Gallery is a challenging space to put up productions because one can only hang three to four lights at a time, whereas a performance in the Black Box Theater would allow for more equipment. In addition, the Horn has no backstage area, so the Dead Man’s Cell Phone crew improvised and hung a curtain across the back of the space. Their creative use of the space served to set the tone. Another thing that was different about this show than in most campus plays is they used a projection screen to help set the scene. In the church scene, they showed a projection of a stained-glass window, and in the scene in Gordon’s mother’s home, there was a large family portrait. There was always a clue of where the scene was even before the scene began. Lastly, the use of classic film noir music between scenes was particularly striking, and it kept the audience in the scene even when they were in blackout.
Avery Baldwin ’17 gave a memorable performance as Gordon, a man who dies in the café at the very beginning of the show; at the beginning of act two, Gordon gives a long monologue that answers all the audience’s questions from act one. His presence seemed to fill the stage, and the audience was hanging onto every word he said. In the first act, Gordon was only a name, but Baldwin brought him to life, casting out any positive assumptions the audience or even Jean, the protagonist, might have developed about Gordon and giving them a concrete character to hold onto for the rest of the show.
Though the show was generally strong, Lily Schneider’s ’18 portrayal of Jean, the protagonist who find’s Gordon’s cell phone, was a bit confusing. Schneider played the part so the audience was led to believe that her character was the age of a college student, or maybe younger. It was revealed later in the show that the character was nearly 40. She overplayed the “innocent” aspect of her character and didn’t fully explore the complexity of Jean that the script offered.
Overall, the poetry of the script was made meaningful through thoughtful direction, creative set choices and memorable actor performances. “I think the script allows a lot of room to interpret who your character is,” audience member Emily Bernstein ’18 said, “and I think that all the actors did that very well.” The mysterious and poignant tone of the play left audience members thinking about the show for the rest of evening.