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Live theatre returns to University of Victoria with Dead Man’s Cell Phone

Theatre design professor takes second stab at Sarah Ruhl staging
Patrick Du Wors, a theatre design professor at the University of Victoria, revisits a previous scenographic concept as Phoenix Theatre presents Dead Man’s Cell Phone by award-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl. (Courtesy UVic Department of Theatre)

Whimsy while diving deep into the human condition in a “kooky and surreal” way – that’s the writing that draws Patrick Du Wors to the work of award-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl.

Ruhl explores the complicated human relationship with cell phones in her loopy comedy Dead Man’s Cell Phone, opening Nov. 11 at the University of Victoria’s Phoenix Theatre.

Directed by Fran Gebhard, the play also offers Du Wors, a theatre design professor, an opportunity to revisit a previous scenographic concept. The first was nearly a decade ago on stage in his hometown Saskatoon. It was the second Ruhl play he’d worked on – the first was Melancholy Play at a Toronto Summerworks Festival.

“She was on my radar and I was starting to realize this is a really important American playwright that I wasn’t that familiar with,” Du Wors said. “What I love about her work is she doesn’t take herself so seriously and I think a lot of 20th-century theatre takes itself so seriously, to the point of alienating itself from the audience.”

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Dead Man’s Cell Phone premiered just days before the release of the first iPhone in 2007, but is set just prior, when flip phones reigned. As a dead man’s cell phone rings incessantly in a cafe, the woman at a nearby table can’t help but answer it. It’s the catalyst that launches her into the lives of his family members.

“Ultimately it’s a play about human connection, even though the cell phone is the intermediary and the catalyst that drives the characters to connect for real in the end,” Du Wors said. “I think we could all use that right now.”

References to the paintings of American realist artist Edward Hopper led to his framing the characters in a sequence of layers to create a foreground, mid ground and background. The re-imagining at UVic provided a larger stage that allowed improved lighting.

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Costume designer and fourth-year student Parker Feenstra also takes her inspiration from Hopper’s paintings, with costumes that evoke the subdued colour schemes for which his art is famous. Sound designer and fourth-year student Miriam Dumitra blends film noir-era music with electronic jazz soundscapes to create a backdrop for scenes and transitions, and for Ruhl’s peculiar and spellbinding cell phone “ballet.”

Directing the camera angles and livestream footage is fourth-year student Sloane Vasko. Making calls behind the scenes is stage manager and fourth-year student Olivia Reid-Friesen.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone runs Nov. 11 to 27, with evening, matinee and weekend shows scheduled. Livestream performances are Nov 19, 20, 26 and 27. Find tickets, showtimes and health protocols in place online at

Christine van Reeuwyk

About the Author: Christine van Reeuwyk

Longtime journalist with the Greater Victoria news team.
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