First-time drama reviewer Robert Sheardown went to Columbia University Players’ production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone, which has its last performance tonight at 8:00 PM.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone was a delightful romp through surprisingly eerie lighting, comedic yet crazed monologues, and the increasingly (albeit intentionally) annoying cell phone ringtone employed by the sound crew. Although parts of the play were certainly comedic—notably Mrs. Gottlieb’s pronouncement that another character was as comforting as a “small casserole” and Gordon’s incredible lobster bisque monologue that was both hilarious and disturbing—there was an overarching feeling that when one laughed it was somehow out of place with the work’s darker undertones.
The play’s nature (the initial action is, of course, a man’s death) as well as lighting that varied from dim to hazy to impersonally bright brought this incongruity to the show. These elements, coupled with characters that transition from mourning widows and dignified matriarchs to drunken and suicidal, cause the audience to laugh despite being well aware that the lives of the characters on stage are falling apart as we watch.
A particularly strong example of this sort of comedic collapse is Mrs. Gottlieb. The audience might originally see her as a type-cast stern mother who is merely there to make one laugh, but instead she becomes far more emotive as the play progresses until her ridiculous, tragic, and climatic suicide.
Hermia is yet another dynamic character. She seems plain, unmotivated, and inexpressive in her initial appearance as a mourning widow, yet in a fantastic transformation becomes both a drunk who provokes laughter and makes one question why some of the characters cannot let go of the play’s eponymous dead man’s cell phone. Other characters go through less of a change throughout the work, but they are still instrumental in driving home the production’s message.
Jean, the character least able to let go of Gordon’s cell phone despite being the one who knew him the least before death, brings to life the play’s central paradox: the phone both brings Jean incredibly close to Gordon by pulling her into his past life but also isolates her from the happenings of her own present life. Her eventual remorse at having become too bound to the technology at the expense of her own relationships is fantastically performed in a scene that both literally and figuratively destroys the hold Gordon’s phone had over her. Gordon, the dead man himself, comes to the forefront in the aforementioned incredible monologue that touches not only lobster bisque but also cereal dregs and spoons. However, these light hearted laughs are provoked alongside a disturbingly angry character, and one who is revealed to have worked in the past in a practice both life-saving but also ethically treacherous.
It is unsurprising that such a character appears in the play’s title as he perfectly summarises the array of conflicts presented, all centred on the question of technology’s ability to both unite and divide. Dwight, a character portrayed as nervous and uncertain, implores Jean to leave Gordon’s cell phone for a far more tangible romance and in doing so acts as a catalyst for her eventual realization that the cell phone is preventing her from fully realising the potential relationship; again, here is the play’s central paradox in action. Lastly, Gordon’s mistress plays a fantastic foil to Jean in her opening scene. Her overly-glamorised character highlights just how little Jean really knows about Gordon’s life despite feeling close to him through his phone.
The fantastic cast is complemented by unique staging techniques, particularly the transitions between scenes; the play has the characters consistently file out in the same order under dim lighting to rearrange the set, their emotions changing to reflect the situations of their actual characters as recordings of calls to Gordon’s phone play in the background. This technique amplifies the emotions provoked by the scenes and exemplifies how calls to Gordon’s phone, despite his death, pull the plot along despite Gordon’s absence from the lives of all the characters who continue to both move through the play’s plot and construct the sets they act in.
Costuming, as well as hair and make-up, mimics the characters quite well; for example, Mrs. Gottlieb transitions from composed mourner to a woman with smeared makeup, a red dress with feathers falling off that reflects her similarly decomposed character, and tattered hair mirror her increasingly expressive character.
Overall, this show was a fantastic performance that places elements of comedy beside much darker, paradoxical questions.
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