'Dead Man's Cell Phone' calls EMU's theater department
Photo courtesy of EMU Theatre
And one day last year, Pirooz Aghssa—a theater professor at Eastern Michigan University—was seduced in a New York drama bookshop by Sarah Ruhl’s play “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.”
“There were several copies of it there, and I had heard of it, but I didn’t know the premise,” said Aghssa, who’s now directing a new production of “Cell Phone” at EMU. “I sat down and opened it, and I didn’t leave the store until I’d finished it.”
What’s the page-turning hook? The play’s main character, Jean, discovers that a man seated at a nearby cafe table has died; and in a moment of shock, she answers his ringing cell phone, and this act sends her on a strange journey of discovery.
"In every play, something happens in the first 20 minutes that changes the course of the play, but in this one, it happens in the very first scene,” said Aghssa. “ I like (Ruhl’s) plays because she starts with a realistic premise, but on top of that realistic premise, she adds improbable situations. She moves from realism into surrealism, and it’s done with humor, so it’s very accessible to the audience, and it’s not academic.”
The challenge for Aghssa and his cast concerns the ways in which they convey the script’s subtle humor, and find logic in the narrative’s flights of fancy.
Anne Bogart, Aghssa’s favorite director, helmed the New York premiere of “Cell Phone” (starring Mary-Louise Parker) in 2008, so while working on his own production, he’s been in e-mail contact with her.“It was really validating to hear her description of Jean,” said Aghssa. “She’s the central character, but Ruhl doesn’t offer any back story—who she is, where she comes from, what she does for a living, if she has a family, nothing. And when I spoke to Anne Bogart, she said she saw Jean as a stand-in for our times. You put her on stage, and the audience projects whatever they want upon her.”
And while Aghssa's tastes usually run toward denser plays, he appreciates the efficient, streamlined punch of “Cell Phone.”
“In a way, it reminds me of (John Patrick Shanley’s play) ‘Doubt,’ because it’s sparse, so the actors have to fill it with all kinds of things.”
Finally, Aghssa appreciates the fact that “Cell Phone” is one of the only post-digital plays out there, reflecting the reality of now in a way few plays can.
“The cell phone really is a main character, and we see how it changes relationships and what it does,” said Aghssa. “ (The play) doesn’t make any statements about cell phones being good or bad, but it shows—when I was in grad school, not only were there no cell phones, but there were no answering machines, either, so this reminds us of how substantially our whole way of communicating with each other has changed.”