Stage & Dance

Cell phone takes center stage in new Actors Guild show

Hayley Williams is Jean, who discovers the title object in Actors Guild of Lexington's production of  "Dead Man's Cell Phone," and Sharon Sikorski is Hermina. Photo by Hilary Brown for Actors Guild of Lexington.
Hayley Williams is Jean, who discovers the title object in Actors Guild of Lexington's production of "Dead Man's Cell Phone," and Sharon Sikorski is Hermina. Photo by Hilary Brown for Actors Guild of Lexington. Actors Guild of Lexington

Eric Seale is a self-confessed technophile. He orchestrates his first full season as the artistic director of Actors Guild of Lexington with a bevy of Mac products at his fingertips: iPad, MacBook Pro, iPhone with four e-mail accounts and synched to Facebook and Twitter. There is no question that Seale is plugged in.

However, when it came time to select the theater's first show of the 27th season — and the first to be mounted in AGL's new Harrodsburg Road location — Seale decided to explore technology's role, for good or ill, as one of the bedrocks of the 21st-century human experience.

Seale chose Dead Man's Cell Phone, a dark comedy by contemporary New York playwright and MacArthur "genius" Fellow Sarah Ruhl.

The play debuted in Washington, D.C., in 2007 before its New York premiere in a critically acclaimed 2008 production starring Mary-Louise Parker.

Local actress Hayley Williams plays Jean, the role for which Parker gained acclaim, a mousy woman drawn into an interconnected web of mystery when she overhears a phone ringing in a café.

Jean is the kind of person who thinks all ringing phones should be answered, so she's annoyed when its owner doesn't quell the ringing with a response. Walking over to him, she discovers he has a pretty good excuse for not answering: He's dead.

The man's phone keeps ringing, and Jean answers. She learns that the dead man's name is Gordon. But who is Gordon — or who was he?

With the help of his cell phone, including incoming calls that Jean answers, even fabricating stories about her relationship to Gordon, the audience is led on an exploration of how much you can learn or know about someone based on their relationship to technology. Can you really know a person based on his cell-phone activity? Does technology bring us closer or isolate us? These are the kinds of ironies and 21st-century moral quandaries that Seale, who also directs the show, hopes to highlight.

Seale says that other shows and directors have inserted modern technology into recent works — last year's SummerFest production of Rent featured cell phones instead of pay phones — but Ruhl's comedy is one of the first whose primary thematic thrust is centered on a contemporary technological phenomenon.

"This is the first play I know of where the cell phone is a central focus to the plot," Seale says. "It forces us to ask, what are these things for? Why do we have them? Are we more connected than ever before or are we just misunderstanding each other easier and faster?"

The play also gets back to AGL's roots in contemporary theater.

"I have been wanting to do this play for a while," he says. "It's a contemporary writer with a contemporary voice and an incredibly relevant topic."

Seale emphasizes the relevance of the show's themes by alluding to recent headlines, including how the man arrested in last week's shooting in Arizona that killed six and injured a congresswoman had left digital clues that he was unstable, but no one acted pre-emptively. Or how about the woman in England who went through with a suicide threat that she posted to more than 1,000 "friends" on Facebook, none of whom responded to her cry for help and some of whom made snarky comments in response.

"I want to look at how much technology impacts our lives, whether it is good or bad, and ask how far we are willing to take it," Seale says of his focus as a director.

Even while examining the darker side of technology, Seale embraces it professionally.

He uses ear buds with his iPhone so he can take calls while doing less-than-glamorous theatrical grunt work, such as building sets and adjusting lighting.

But all of that connectedness can come with a price.

At the end of a one-hour interview, Seale is obliged to see what he has missed during his brief absence from technology.

"My phone has beeped eight times," he says.