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Reviews: "Dead Man's Cell Phone" and "A Gulag Mouse."

Art Snob Blog

Two newish plays went on stage in Anchorage last month, one of which will stick with me for a while.

"Dead Man's Cell Phone" by Sarah Ruhl will run at Cyrano's until April 21 and features a very good cast led by Krista M. Schwarting. Schwarting, on stage almost every second of the show, plays an excessively sheltered woman who gets the incessantly ringing cell phone from a dubious businessman, Joshua Lowman, who expires at the table next to hers as she sips lobster bisque. For her the phone is a way of getting a life. Through it she meets his alcoholic mother, Vicki Russell, and dweeb brother, also played by Lowman, as well as the deceased's widow and mistress, both played by Martha Robinson. 

It purports to be a play about privacy in the age of hyperconnectivity. But it felt more like a skit that went on far too long. The comedy is light and uninsightful. Though the performances were crisp, persuasive and smoothly choreographed by director Codie Costello, there was only so much the presenters could do with their two-dimensional, disconnected characters.

Humor, in this scrip, involves things like serving prime rib to a semi-vegetarian. Getting drunk and talking about sex. The scene changes, which may be part of the text, were numerous and distracting and tended to bring any momentum to a halt. The high point is a monologue from the dead man who tells us, among other things, that he doesn't put soy sauce on his sushi because you're supposed to taste the sushi. Ha ha. That Lowman was able to deliver this line in a way that drew even a small response from the audience indicates how well the actors were able squeeze moments from the feeble material - material not worthy of the author of "A Clean House" and MacArthur fellow.

The acting - in fact the whole production - was also of a high caliber at "A Gulag Mouse" by Arthur M. Jolly, which wraps up on Sunday at Out North. Five women in the cast all turned in riveting performances. (The only male performer was Aaron Wiseman who, predictably, also did a fine job in the couple of minutes that he was present.)

Sentenced to a Siberian prison camp for killing her husband, Anastasia (jill Sowerwine) discovers that the the first horrors of the gulag are her cell-mates. Angry, bossy, bullying Masha (Annia Wyndham), stoic, resigned Svetlana (Tamar Shai), pretty and desperate Lubov (Morgan Mitchell) and the mousey Prushka (Danielle Rabinovitch). Who gets the bed nearest the stove, who dies so the others can get through another day, who ultimately is a criminal and what do they deserve, to what extent do we all carry these crimes within us? These are just some of the matters that swarm around the action like flies on a fish carcass. It's not easy to look at, but makes a strong impression.

Despite an ending that is either problematic - was the preceding a dream? - or a magnificent theatrical coup, the inner story of conflict and power among the powerless, of the relationship between survival and living, makes for a gripping prison drama. I found myself on edge from the moment the lights went up to the end, or almost.

Here the performers had meat to work with. Wyndham, in particular was mesmerizing, her face contorting, hands twitching nervously, loudly asserting her cellblock authority. Director Arlitia Jones had honed the cast and crew to a ceramic knife edge - dangerously sharp and brittle. Carrie Yanagawa's simple but dramatic set, someone's application of makeup (Scott Heverling was credited with costume design) and the grim lighting (Jeff Aldrich) matched the mood of the dark, dark plot effectively. Everything was as real and lively as stagecraft can make it. 

Jolly is not without his successes, but he remains a novice name in the world of theater. Ruhl has spent much of the last ten years acclaimed as a major talent and up-and-coming genius. But seeing these two shows back to back, "A Gulag Mouse" is the one that approaches genius, the one that has a chance of outliving its author. The one I'm thinking about as the next week begins and will be thinking about for a long time to come..

 


MIKE DUNHAM
Anchorage