Actor embraces offbeat ‘Dead Man’s Cell Phone’


What: “Dead Man’s Cell Phone”

Where: The Youngstown Playhouse

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and

Saturday; and May 20 and 21

Tickets: Call 330-788-8739

By Milan Paurich

Former WHOT-FM radio personality Brandy Johanntges has been making quite a name for herself on the community-theater scene in recent years.

Best known for scene-stealing supporting turns in large-scale musicals (“Titanic,” “Beauty and the Beast”) and fluffy fare (“Enchanted April,” “Nunsense”), Johanntges will be trying something completely different in her latest (starring) role.

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” a 2008 play by Sarah Ruhl (“Eurydice,” “The Clean House”), is definitely not your typical community-theater fare. But as the penultimate show of the Youngstown Playhouse’s 2010-11 Griffith-Adler season, it’s the kind of edgy, risk-taking material that’s catnip for adventurous theatergoers — and actors.

In a recent interview, Johanntges discussed why “DMCP” was such an irresistible challenge.

Q. What made you want to tackle a serio-comic role as demanding as Holocaust museum worker Jean in “DMCP”?

A. I love trying new things, especially plays that are a little off the beaten path. If I get the chance to leave my comfort zone, I always try to take advantage of it so that I can broaden my range and not fall victim to typecasting. That’s why this role was so appealing. I can’t fall back on what I normally do (on stage), and I’ve never played anyone quite like this before. Jean is much more subdued than most of the characters I’m used to playing, so it’s been interesting to see if I can pull it off.

Q. What are the principal differences between acting in a resolutely old-fashioned musical such as, say, “Oliver!” and an off-beat, contemporary piece such as “DMCP”? Or is the discipline pretty much the same despite the wildly divergent context?

A. Singing is easier for me than acting, and I’m normally much more comfortable with less lines and more songs (laughs). In shows like “Oliver!” or “Beauty and the Beast,” the audience pretty much knows what they’re going to get (big songs; elaborate sets), whereas in “DMCP,” they won’t know what’s going to happen from scene to scene because the mood changes so frequently. The focal point is much more on the actors since there aren’t any big production numbers to fall back on. Acting-wise, I’m more comfortable doing musicals because I can make a connection with the audience through song. In a play, I don’t have that crutch to fall back on, so I really have to work on my acting skills to pull it off.

Q. Could you give us a thumbnail sketch of the plot for those who might not be familiar with the show?

A. Jean encounters a dead man, acquires his cellphone and (rather clumsily) integrates herself into his life with sometimes disastrous, sometimes hilarious consequences. In the process, she has a massive epiphany; not just about herself, but about the identity of the dead man whom she’s conjured in her mind without knowing who he really was. It’s a play that makes you think about how we’re all becoming more lost and increasingly disconnected from each other — despite all of the advances in technology.

Q. Who else is appearing in the show?

A. Alan McCreary, Cindy Plyler, Cheryl Games, Eric Kibler and Kim Akins. They all bring a lot to the table and help me to be a better actor.

Q. You’re working with a first-time director in stage-manager extraordinaire Susi Thompson. What has that experience been like?

A. It’s been one of the most relaxed and enriching theater experiences I’ve ever had. Susi may be a first-time director, but because she’s been so deeply involved with so many productions over the years, she’s able to bring an in-depth understanding of the process. Also, she’s allowing us to develop our characters the way we think they should develop. She asks a lot of thought-provoking questions about the characters after each rehearsal to help prod us into really thinking about their behavior. A lot of directors like to yell, micromanage or tell you exactly how to behave without ever giving you the chance to interpret the character for yourself. Susi’s completely the opposite, and she knows exactly what she’s doing.

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