‘Black comedy’ explores relationships

The Black Box Theater in Hartnett Hall is the venue for Carlen Gilseth’s Minot State University directorial debut, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.” The play was written in 2008 by Sarah Ruhl, a MacArthur Fellowship (aka “Genius Grant”) recipient and Pulitzer Prize finalist. It runs from Tuesday through Saturday, April 27, at 7:30 p.m. in Hartnett Hall.

The story of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is encapsulated in the title. It opens at a cafe where the man, played by Joshua Snyder, is ordering what turns out to be his last meal. He woke that morning craving lobster bisque – but another customer, Jean, played by Brittany Armstrong, had already taken the last bowl. As Gilseth puts it, “He ended up with the lentil soup and dead.”

The man’s continually ringing cell phone irritates Jean enough for her to answer it, which draws this previously mousy woman into many adventures and locales outside her comfort zone. First she goes to his funeral, where she meets the family, including the widow Hermia, played by Christine Morse, and the brother Dwight, played by Daniel Johnson.

The dead man, Gordon, came from wealth and was still very wealthy, but was an unsavory type of guy, as shown by the Other Woman, Krys Zorbaugh. Playing all the other characters are Alyssa Bauer, Jordan Crawford and Connor Donovan, all MSU students, joined by community member Marcy Witteman as Gordon’s mother, Mrs. Gottlieb.

“The thing is, the black box (theater) puts the audience so close to the actors, makeup would not be as effective as having an actor of more appropriate age,” said Gilseth.

“I auditioned for ‘Dixie Swim Club’ at the Mouse River Players,” Witteman said. “Carlen directed that, and when he needed someone, he contacted me.”

“This is a very black comedy,” said Gilseth. “It’s not for children.”

Stage manager Grant Johnson agreed. “It’s definitely a PG-16,” he said. “For language, not situations.”

Jean finds that the business Gordon was in was a black market in human organs. He did not see this as bad, but a way of connecting those in need with those who could fill that need. As Jean enters this world, she becomes her own woman, and falls in love with him.

“Cell phones, iPods, wireless computers will change people in ways we don’t even understand,” Ruhl stated. “We’re less connected to the present. No one is where they are. There’s absolutely no reason to talk to a stranger anymore – you connect to people you already know. But how well do you know them? Because you never see them – you just talk to them. I find that terrifying.”

The box office will open at 7 p.m. on nights of performances. Ticket prices are $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and students; MSU faculty and students free with current MSU ID. Due to very limited seating, reservations are recommended and can be made by calling 858-3172.