I was busy a week ago when Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati opened Dead Man's Cell Phone a week ago, so I didn't get around to seeing it until last evening. (You can read Tom McElfresh's review in this week's issue.) The new play by Sarah Ruhl, who's adaptation of Chekhov's Three Sisters will be onstage at the Playhouse later this month, is a blast to watch. If you enjoyed the irrational logic of The Clean House (at the Playhouse in 2007) or Eurydice at Know Theatre last spring, you'll revel in this play. —-
Ruhl's title gives you the show's premise but tells you little about its oddball humor, some of it dark, more of it quirky and a good bit of it ultimately sentimental.
Adding to the fun is a cast that offers prime evidence of why theater is so good here in town. Annie Fitzpatrick plays Jean, the woman who picks up the cell phone because its ringing troubles her. Fitzpatrick is an ETC regular, but the rest of the cast is a who's who of actors from other stages. Gordon, who's dead but colorful as all get-out, is played by Nick Rose, one of Cincinnati Shakespeare's co-founders. His awkward but thoughtful brother Dwight is embodied by Brian Isaac Phillips, Cincinnati Shakespeare's current artistic director (and a one-time ETC intern).
Their domineering and judgmental mother is played by Kate Wilford, who recently won a CEA for playing Linda in New Edgecliff's 2008 production of Death of a Salesman. (She's performed at ETC and Cincy Shakes, too.) I loved watching kj Jones as Gordon's widow, blowsy and raucous with several hidden sides; Jones teaches acting at UC's College-Conservatory of Music, and this role is evidence as to why her students are learning a lot. (She's been seen at Cincy Shakes in the past and as well as ETC.) Finally, Morgan Grahame is "the other woman," a role that's more about caricature than character, but she's eminently watchable with several comic turns.
I'll point out, too, that this production is directed by Michael Evan Haney, associate artistic director of the Cincinnati Playhouse, and staged on a remarkably functional — although very abstract — set by Brian c. Mehring. His sets are always clever and beautiful, but this one works in so many ways and with very few resources: Just enough design to tell us where people are and what's going on. With Haney's clear and inventive direction, this is a show that's definitely worth seeing. Performances are through Oct. 25, but it seemed to me the theater was just about full on a Thursday evening, so calling now for tickets would be a good idea: 513-421-3555.