Phoenix Theatre returns with their first mainstage production since the pandemic closed their doors: Dead Man’s Cell Phone by acclaimed playwright Sarah Ruhl runs November 11-27.

A wildly imaginative comedy that blends quirkiness with soul, Dead Man’s Cell Phone reminds us of the importance of connection in a world more and more isolated by technology.

Who’s calling?

When a cell phone will not stop ringing at the café table next to her, Jean’s inclination to answer it launches her into the complicated personal lives of a dead man’s mother, his brother, his wife, and his mistress. This loopy and sometimes otherworldly odyssey becomes a wake-up call, forcing Jean to confront her own assumptions, and ultimately realize that life is for the living.

“I only got two scenes into reading Sarah Ruhl’s play and already I was hooked,” explains director and Theatre professor Fran Gebhard. “The play’s premise takes sad events and important themes and treats them in a bizarre and meta-theatrical way. This definitely appealed to my offbeat sense of humor.”

A multi-award-winning playwright, Phoenix previously presented a visually striking production of Ruhl’s Eurydice on the mainstage back in 2012.

Jean (Jane Rees) looks at Gordon (Ryan Kniel) one last time as the ambulance arrives in Dead Man’s Cell Phone (photo: Dean Kalyan)

Exploring isolation

Dead Man’s Cell Phone explores our post-millennial fixation with wireless communication,” continues Gebhard. “We are so connected with one another through our devices that we actually feel painful isolation when we misplace or lose our cellphones. I love how, in this play, Ruhl creates two characters that bring us a vivid participation with old fashioned stationery and its tactile properties.”

Gebhard says she found visual inspiration in the script itself. “When I read Ruhl’s stage direction referring to a moment akin to a figure in an Edward Hopper painting I really began to envision the play.”

Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting “Nighthawks”

Working with Theatre professor Patrick Du Wors on set and lighting design has resulted in a genuinely Hopper-inspired look for the production. Gebhard quotes American essayist Mark Strand on Hopper’s paintings: “. . . there is a lot of waiting going on . . . they are like characters whose parts have deserted them and now, trapped in the space of their waiting, must keep themselves company.”

“During this era of the pandemic many of us have all experienced a feeling of loneliness and we are waiting, waiting for whatever the new normal will be,” says Gebhard.

Welcome back

With audiences back in the Phoenix for the first time since March 2020, everyone is excited for this production—and the rest of their 21/22 season.

Coming up next is the world premiere of The Waste Land (February 17-26), staged by director and choreographer Conrad Alexandrowicz to mark the 100th anniversary of T.S. Eliot’s classic modernist poem, followed by Shakespeare’s Women (March 17-26), by guest director and Stratford Festival favourite Dean Gabourie

“It is such a pleasure to welcome you back to the Phoenix stage to experience this magical comedy about connectivity,” says Gebhard of Dead Man’s Cell Phone. “Enjoy the show!”

Dead Man’s Cell Phone runs through to November 27 (no shows Sunday-Monday), with matinees on November 20 & 27. Tickets run $16-$30, with livestream performances at $15 per household