Greetings, Earthlings!Review: Dead Man's Cell Phone ~ theatre notes

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Greetings, Earthlings!

Your long-lost blogger is circling back to the planet after a hiatus that was rather longer than planned. As you know, we moved house, which is rightly described as one of the more stressful interludes in life's rich banality; but this in itself doesn't account for my absence. Ms TN came down with a vicious bout of flu that left me bedridden for a fortnight, and on top of that I encountered the Kafkaesque world of Aapt Customer Service, a dark exercise in 21st century oxymoronic disempowerment and futility. I still don't know why it took almost a month to move my account, but it did: and at last today I am reconnected to the cyberworld. Although I'm still, physically speaking, a little shaky on my pins, I feel like a long and necessary metamorphosis is almost complete.

In the meantime, Things Have Happened: against all expectation, the VCA is back, with the School of Music being folded into the Melbourne Conservatorium and the "M" (for the "Melbourne Model") being dropped from its monicker. And Simon Phillips yesterday announced his resignation as artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company at the end of this year, opening thickets of speculation over who will take this crucial position.

I did see a couple of shows last week, which now my fevers have abated I want to write about, since both were so interesting: Benedict Andrews' Belvoir St production of Measure for Measure, and Lucy Guerin's new dance/theatre piece, Human Interest Story. I'm still taking things a bit slowly, but the neurones are beginning to flicker fitfully, and by next week, TN should be back on track, even given how the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, etc. There's been enough agley for now, I reckon. And it's nice to be back.

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Monday, July 05, 2010

Review: Dead Man's Cell Phone

An overdose of whimsy can bring out the worst in a girl. Take the obsidian Dorothy Parker, celebrated critic of the Algonquin Round Table set in 1920s New York. Whimsy could set her off like nobody’s business.

She famously wrote an excoriating review of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, in which she complained that “Tonstant weader fwowed up”. Milne also wrote some deservedly forgotten plays, one of which Parker claimed forced her to shoot herself in the theatre.

I have read some of Milne’s plays, and it’s not difficult to see Parker’s point: at least one can put a book down. Although written for adults, they are steeped in a kind of twilit cutesiness that gives the impression they were written in scented violet ink.

The question of the day is whether US playwright Sarah Ruhl is the A.A. Milne of our time. She has made her reputation writing plays that critics have labelled “magical realism”, after the surreality of writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The Clean House (2004) was produced by the MTC four years ago. Although this play teetered uncomfortably on the edge of twee, I remember it as an unambitious but enjoyable piece of comic theatre about the relationships between three very different women.

Her 2007 play Dead Man’s Cell Phone moves beyond the domestic realm, supposedly creating a metaphysical parable about death, dying and love. It’s an infantile exploration of these questions, richly larded with, yes, whimsy, and bonus op-ed-style homilies about 21st century digital life.

Lonely single Jean (Lisa McCune) is eating soup in a cafĂ© when another customer’s phone begins to ring. When he doesn’t pick up she answers it herself, only finding out afterwards that Gordon has died in his chair.

By stealing his mobile phone, Jean begins to appropriate Gordon’s life, becoming a cuckoo in his predictably quirky family and weaving a pink-hazed fantasy around a man who turns out to be more than morally dubious.

It being this kind of play, all Jean’s well-intentioned lies turn out for the best. The good news is that death is quite nice, really.

Peter Evans’s production is better than this play deserves, although the Edward Hopper-inspired set is mysteriously claustrophobic and muddy. The textured green walls absorb the light, making it impossible to recreate Hopper's haunting, empty luminosity.

As with all recent MTC productions, it’s very well cast. It features some excellent clowning, especially from Sarah Sutherland, who plays Gordon’s ex-wife. This can’t make up for the inanity of the writing, but at least I could leave the gun in my handbag.

Picture: Sarah Sutherland and Lisa McCune in Dead Man's Cell Phone. Photo: Jeff Busby

This review almost appears in today's Australian.

Dead Man's Cell Phone, by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Peter Evans. Melbourne Theatre Company. Sumner Theatre, MTC Theatre, Melbourne. July 1. Until August 7.

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