By Bridgette M. Redman
Reality television thrives on ruining lives, humiliating people, destroying dreams and showing the very worst aspects of our humanity. So why is it such a popular entertainment genre?
Eric Coble's 2006 play "The Dead Guy" doesn't directly answer that question, but it does pose several more about the value we place on other people's lives, the guilt that stains our hands when we contribute to another person's destruction and the ways that we self-justify the things that we want to do.
And it asks those questions while tickling you with laughter using the darkest of satire and ridiculous human interactions. It is one of those plays that, as Director Tony Caselli likes to say, makes you "laugh and laugh until you stop laughing."
Williamston Theatre's season opener is a multimedia collaboration with Michigan State University. The stage is populated with multiple televisions framing a recording studio in which set pieces can create any setting needed for the main character, Eldon Phelps, to spend his million dollars and decide what his life is worth.
Chris Korte in the title role creates a sympathetic loser out of Eldon. He elicits immediate sympathy, as he is so steeped in denial about the state of his own life and the role he played in getting it where it is. He is ever the self-destructive innocent whose thinking is limited and his ability to make competent decisions compromised. Korte's enthusiastic commitment to creating a confused Eldon makes Robin Lewis-Bedz' Gina Yaweth all the creepier. The producer and host of the reality television show "The Dead Guy," she seduces and manipulates Eldon in pursuit of the almighty ratings. Even her silences are fraught with meaning, and she casts herself with high hubris into the role of Eldon's creator.
Together the two of them turn in a powerful performance in which both enable each other's characters to stay in the shallow end of the pool of humanity, ever avoiding the depths that would reveal their mutual ineptitude at the skills of genuine, unmanipulated emotion and connection. Yet both characters travel an arc, and both are drastically different people by the time the play's climax strikes.
MSU student Eric Eilersen plays Dougie, the mostly silent cameraman whose occasional pithy remarks sometimes have the feel of a Greek chorus. Eilersen expertly handles the camera both as a prop and a means of creating a live feed that is sometimes projected onto the television screens as a way of making the theater audience double as the audience "at home" in front of the TV. His performance marks a promising launch for the theater junior's professional career.
The remaining three actors constantly switch roles to create all the other characters needed on Eldon and Gina's weeklong journey. Their changes are so effective that one could easily forget it was the same actor, especially MSU junior Michelle Serje's switch between such characters as the small-town girlfriend who transforms from a slightly trashy, potty-mouthed 20-year-old to the uber-responsible and harried nurse of a children's ward. Her portrayal of Christy, Eldon's ex-girlfriend, invites the audience to feel genuine emotion for the mixed-up main character. Williamston's Managing Director Chris Purchis adds to the hilarity as Roberta, the not-so-model mother who is far more worried about what people will think of her than of her son's life and problems. Ian Page, the third MSU student in the cast of this joint production, fully commits to the pratfalls of the hapless Virgil, the verbal absurdities of the Disney guard and the over-eager zeal of the hospital aide who sees a way to take advantage of Eldon's growing fame.
The partnership with MSU isn't just on stage. Media designer and M.F.A. student B. Emil Boulos mixed live feeds and recorded spots that were interwoven into the production so expertly that they managed to walk that fine line between distracting from the live action and supporting it. In "The Dead Guy," Boulos contributed his electronic wizardry to create what was effectively a seventh character that hovered like a specter over everyone's fate.
Lighting Designer Genesis Garza likewise contributed to the razzle-dazzle of the fast-paced production with projections and mood lighting throughout the show.
While the subject of reality television shows marks this play as very much a new millennium work, the themes and journeys have echoes of "Flowers for Algernon," "Glengarry Glenn Ross" and "Death of a Salesman" in its expert exploration of what makes an individual valuable and what people will sacrifice or steal for their own success. "The Dead Guy" is not a play one soon forgets, as it charges you for every laugh and makes sure your tab at the final curtain is expensive. It entertains without manipulating and surprises with its suggestion of what poetic justice might be.
'The Dead Guy'
Williamston Theatre, 122 S. Putnam St., Williamston. Thursday-Sunday through Oct. 30. $22-$25. 517-655-7469. http://www.williamstontheatre.org