What would happen if you answered a dead man’s phone?
A ‘wicked good’ comedy about a man who drops dead in a café leaving a lot of loose ends and the stranger who ends up on a bizarre odyssey to pull them together is being brought to the Adelaide stage in an immersive new show.
Annabel Matheson, who plays Jean, in one of the photos used in the fundraising campaign for Wicked Good Productions' 'Dead Man's Cell Phone'. Photo: supplied
It was the quirky fundraising campaign that first piqued our curiosity about Dead Man’s Cell Phone. One newsletter from Adelaide’s Wicked Good Productions featured a series of photos of director Tim Overton looking, by turn, resolute and perplexed as he tried to “get a head start on blocking the show using his Dungeons & Dragons mini figurines”.
“Now he’s wondering where he can find a 12-foot one-eyed tentacle monster for Act 2,” said the missive.
Director Tim Overton ‘tries to get a head start on blocking the show using his Dungeons & Dragons mini figurines’. Photo: supplied
In another instalment of these Diaries of a Creative Team, actor James Smith – pictured posing dramatically as a dead/dying man-in-black – declared that he felt very lucky to be involved with the production: “The play’s got everything! Love, death, lobster bisque and black-market organ dealing…”
On top of this, according to the Australian Cultural Fund campaign, the audience would be integral to the show, “shaping the performance each night for a unique experience”.
Now we get to see what it’s all about, with Wicked Good Productions presenting American playwright Sarah Ruhl’s comedy at Slingsby’s Hall of Possibility as part of State Theatre Company South Australia’s Stateside program.
Wicked Good’s “head storyteller” Caitlin Ellen Moore, who is co-producing Dead Man’s Cell Phone with Overton, says the story centres on a character named Jean who is sitting in a café one day when a man’s phone starts ringing and doesn’t stop. The reason, it turns out, is that this stranger has died at one of the café’s table.
“So she, for some reason, takes his phone and gets thrown into this adventure of connection and reaching out to the people who have lost this character, Gordon,” Moore says, explaining how Jean ends up having encounters with members of the dead man’s family and others in his life.
“Jean is a really interesting character, because I feel like she makes a lot of choices that we wouldn’t make ourselves – starting with answering a dead man’s cell phone and then following it. Jean is almost like a connection point and a point of development for all of the other main characters in the play, and she’s our guide into learning more about these people…
Caitlin Ellen Moore of Wicked Good Productions.
“The play is this weird, funny, quirky piece of theatre that looks into love and connection and loss, and the way that people can grieve.”
Ruhl is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama whose previous works include In the Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play), which was produced by State Theatre Company in 2012, and Eurydice, which local company Foul Play Theatre presented at Adelaide Fringe in 2015. Dead Man’s Cell Phone had its world premiere in Washington DC in 2007, and an Off-Broadway season in New York the following year starring Mary-Louise Parker (The West Wing, Angels in America).
The playwright’s website describes it as a work about how we remember the dead, and “the journey of a woman forced to confront her presumptions about morality, redemption, and isolation in a technologically obsessed society”.
Moore adds that despite being written in the early 2000s, many of the work’s ideas and themes still resonate with today’s technology and the way that we communicate.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone will be the biggest show staged by Wicked Good Productions (previously Wickedly Good Productions), whose other works have included the Fringe shows Grief Lightning and You’re All Invited to My Son Samuel’s Fourth Birthday Party. The collective was established several years ago by Moore (a creative producer of radio shows and podcasts, as well as theatre) and Chris Best (a poet, photographer, actor and filmmaker) with the aim of telling “wicked good stories” and providing opportunities for artists.
Wicked Good’s promised “innovative new realisation” of Dead Man’s Cell Phone features an all-South Australian cast, with Annabel Matheson – who also played the title character in Foul Play’s Eurydice – starring alongside James Smith, Shabana Azeez and Carmel Johnson. Musician Dave McEvoy has composed music for the show and will play a baby grand piano on stage.
Performances will be intimate, with around 100 audience members sitting in traverse in the Hall of Possibilities.
James Smith and Annabel Matheson in rehearsals for Dead Man’s Cell Phone. Photo: supplied
Moore is somewhat enigmatic in their explanation of the innovative and immersive elements, saying that the production aims to create “magical, long-lasting moments” of connection with both the actors and audience members – but this doesn’t involve audience participation.
“It’s very practical and almost classic in a sense, in that there’s not a lot of high-tech stuff going on, and it’s very much looking at how we can strip all of that away and treat these really fun, interesting, meaningful moments with this piece of text that does look at connection.
“It’s innovative in a way that we’re almost taking a step back and looking at what we’ve been missing and also looking at how independent theatre-makers can try to make innovative work that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.”
Director Tim Overton has relished Ruhl’s “incredible images” and the opportunities the play offers for playful invention, with the creative team taking inspiration from the magical realism of the playwright’s body of work.
“We’re still kind of in reality but in some fantastical element of it, which I think we see a lot in film and television but less so in theatre,” Moore says.
“For us, it’s really about how do we create moments of magical realism in theatre… like maybe there is a staged choreographed fight in the middle of the show in a situation where you really wouldn’t be expecting that sort of fight, or leaning into almost period drama dance pieces at different moments as well.
“The audience will find there’s a lot of moments where what they’re seeing in front of them is not what they expected but absolutely makes sense in the moment.”
Dead Man’s Cell Phone will be presented in Slingsby’s Hall of Possibility from November 25 until December 10.