It happens every day. You’re sitting in a café, and you hear a cell phone ringing and ringing. Why won’t someone answer that phone?
In Sarah Ruhl’s dark comedy “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” there’s a legitimate (and obvious, given the title) reason why, but Jean, a stranger, walks over and answers it anyway. Gordon, as it turns out, is not available. Not now, not ever again. But Jean embarks on a strange journey, attending the dead man’s funeral and trying to discover who he was.
Theatre  opens its third mainstage season with a production of Ruhl’s surreal farce, which premiered at Washington D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in 2007 and in New York at Playwrights Horizons (directed by SITI Company’s Anne Bogart) in 2008.
“She picks up, answers a call, and goes on this crazy journey. Meets his family, meets his widow, falls in love with his brother, and tries to right all of the wrongs this dead man, Gordon, has done in his life,” says Gil Reyes, co-artistic director of Theatre  and director of this production. “She tries to make him the person she wishes he was.”
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” asks several big questions, including this philosophical brain teaser: where do we go when someone else dies? Reyes says that’s part of what drew him to the script.
“One of the reasons we wanted to do it is because it was such a challenge,” says Reyes. “It has some big magical moments. Some huge themes that are played out visually on the stage. Tonally, it’s a difficult show as well, because it’s a farce with a lot of hidden meaning and a-ha moments for the audience. It’s a difficult combination to navigate.”
Ruhl’s work is known for its surreal blending of the metaphysical and the mundane, and that can translate into some technically tricky moments on stage, like at the end of act one, when stage directions call for an effect that Reyes says “launches us even further into the surreal nature of this journey.”
“We think it’s important to not only challenge our audiences with work that is going to require them to take that extra leap, but our artists with an opportunity to try new things on stage, to create new visuals, and to try out characters that are very complex. It’s part of our ongoing mission to build the caliber of theater,” he says.
To that end, the production will run in The Baron’s Theatre (the former Squirrely’s Tea Room, upstairs in Whiskey Row Lofts), originally designed by Louisville magician Baron LaValle for his act. The company recently launched a year-long serial play about Louisville magicians in the same space.
“Because it was built for magic, it has amazing sightlines and intimacy,” says Reyes. “You feel, even when you’re in the back, that you’re right there in this world.”
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” opens Friday and runs through June 29 at The Baron’s Theatre, 131 W. Main St.