‘Ovation’ in a theater

If you’re looking for a way to picture Henry Jaglom’s “Ovation,” think of a movie about a play within a play that wants to be a movie.

Written by Jaglom and Ron Vignone, “Ovation” is a smart and self-aware 110-minute film that plays with its art form.

Layered like one of those paintings of a painting within a painting of a painting, Jaglom and Vignone write a play within the confines of a film. Jaglom, who’s a film director and playwright, uses the structure of a play to provide the film’s narrative skeleton.

Set within the span of a week, “Ovation” houses a good dose of foreshadowing, humor, dramatic irony and many of the conventions found in a play. It even employs a soothsayer, who takes the form of a fortune teller who stars as a psychic who plays a fortune teller in a neighboring theatre production.

There’s a lot of this kind of play within Jaglom and Vignone’s script.

While we see standing ovations for “The Rainmaker” (that’s the name of the play within Jaglom and Vignone’s film), the “The Rainmaker’s” also having trouble making it rain.

Filmed and edited by Vignone, “Ovation” is mostly seen through actor dressing rooms and backstage corridors. We watch the top of people’s heads sitting in the audience while the play itself is mostly offscreen. 

Onscreen is TV actor Steward Henry (played by James Denton of “Desperate Housewives,” “Devious Maids” and “Good Witch”), who tries to convince “The Rainmaker” star Maggie (Tanna Frederick) to lead in a television show with him.

While “Ovation” is a package of paradoxical parameters, it’s cleverly wrapped. The film’s opening credits remind us of the opening of a TV show.

Jaglom and Vignone continue to break the fourth wall with some bits of sophisticated dialogue. In one scene, a playwright has a revelation that one of the film’s subplots would be great for a play.

It is, of course. And when the curtain rises, we can’t help but applaud.

“Ovation” was written by Henry Jaglom and Ron Vignone and directed by Jaglom. It premiered in Western New York as part of the tenth annual Buffalo International Film Festival. 

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Committing to ‘Master of None’

When we first meet Dev Shah (Aziz Ansari) in “Masters of None,” he’s the quintessential self-entitled millennial. A 30-year-old bachelor living in the Big Apple, he has the world at his fingertips: Uber, Yelp, Google, Tindr, and dozens of other modern conveniences.

But at much as he’s the master at finding the best-reviewed taco trucks, Dev’s also the victim of other first world problems plaguing the millennial generation: awkward one-night stands, spotty Wi-Fi in his apartment, and the paralyzing possibility that there’s always something better out there.

Consider this: Rather than go to the closest taco truck, every decision (no matter how inconsequential) is throughly researched. Dev consults reviews from Yelp and Google to find the very best-reviewed tacos he could possibly consume; however, by the time he finishes his research and arrives at his destination, the best-reviewed taco truck in New York City has sold out of tacos.

This two-minute montage showcases creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s (“Parks and Recreation”) writing prowess. The addictive 10-episode Netflix original hilariously illustrates the modern hangups of today’s 20 and 30-something year olds as if they were happening to our best friends, rather than characters in a TV show.

“I asked this girl out three weeks ago; she said nothing,” Dev says. “They give you silence. Why?”

His friend Denise (Lena Waithe) responds, “Dude, if she hasn’t texted you in two days, it means she doesn’t want to go. This is a very clear and unambiguous situation.”

Of course, Ansari knows why its easier to ghost someone rather than respond. “We all have the same nightmare,” Ansari said once during a stand-up special at Madison Square Garden. “The nightmare where you do commit to the thing with Phil…. and then you get that phone call: ‘Dude, where are you? Biggie and Tupac faked their deaths! They’re doing a show right now! I have an extra ticket!'”

By that same reasoning, a having a kid is the ultimate nightmare: the commitment which always prevents you from going to that Biggie and Tupac concert, from going to that bar or club and from taking home that random stranger to have an awkward one-night stand with.

“Luckily we got one of those Plan B things so two people who barely know each other will not be raising a human child together,” Dev tells his friends Arnold (Eric Wareheim) and Denise.

Many of the ideas in “Master of None” have already been explored in Ansari’s stand-up, which topics range from how people communicate to how creepy guys approach women.

These points are expanded into sketches featured in “Master of None.” In “Ladies and Gentlemen,” Ansari and Yang illustrate gender inequality by juxtaposing Dev and Arnold’s trip home from the bar with that of one one Dev’s female co-workers. He steps in dog poop; she has to call the cops because a creepy guy follows her home from the bar.

In “Parents,” Ansari and Yang compare how much easier life is for first-generation Americans like Dev and his Taiwanese American friend Brian (Kelvin Yu). Dev’s dad (Shoukath Ansari) wasn’t allowed to play games; Dev grew up with computer games and iPads. The episode stars Ansari’s own parents, Shoukath and Fatima.

“Master of None” packages these powerful social critiques in a neatly wrapped comedic burrito. The salsa blends with the beef and the cheese touches the lettuce, but even ideas that aren’t kosher are easily digestible 30-minute episodes.

In “Indians on TV,” Dev fiercely campaigns for more well-rounded Indian American representation in media. “There can’t be two — because of course, two Indian people would make it an Indian show,” a TV executive says when Dev questions why the studio can’t cast both him and an Indian American actor in a “Friends”-style sitcom.

“Master of None” smartly ribs on covert racism in American culture, pointing out that while blackface is wrong, white actors are still cast to play Indians.

“That’s Fisher Stevens,” Dev points out in a still of “Short City 2.” “They used brownface make-up.”

“Master of None” isn’t like any other show out there, delving into the psyche of the modern 20 to 30-something. As much as its a satire about indecision, this, of course, is one commitment we can easily make.

“Master of None” was created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. The 10-episode first season is available for streaming on Netflix. 

RTI presents LaBute’s one-man-play ‘Wrecks’ this Friday

If you’re a regular patron of the Readers’ Theatre of Ithaca, you’ve probably seen a Neil LaBute play before. The Readers’ Theatre has performed several dramas over the years, including “In a Forest Dark and Deep,” “Mercy Seat” and “Fat Pig.”

This Friday through Sunday at Cinemapolis, the Readers’ Theatre will perform LaBute’s one-man-play “Wrecks,” starring Chris Nickerson as recent widow Edward Carr.

What makes this 80-minute play unique, though, is that it exists solely inside Carr’s head. Nickerson plays his stream of consciousness during his wife’s eulogy. This allows the playwright to subvert social conventions, giving his character leeway to say what he really means.

“I think the whole stream of consciousness writing is really fascinating, too, in this piece,” says Nickerson.  “How he goes from one thing to another and his thoughts are just rolling and rolling and rolling. It’s full of commas.” 

LaBute rationalizes the vices in his character by making Carr an older widow diagnosed with cancer. Our sympathies allow him to get away with anything, including chain smoking a pack of cigarettes in front of us.

“It’s unusual, a play like this,” says director Anne Marie Cummings. “And I don’t think it gets done a lot, either. It takes a very committed actor.”

Months of commitment

Nickerson started preparing for this role more than two months ago.

“When I first came in for the audition, Anne Marie wasn’t sure about putting it on the schedule,” he said.

But as the Readers’ Theatre begins its fifth season, Cummings decided that she wanted to take a lot of risks, including presenting RTI’s first off-book play.

“When I saw him, ‘I was like, he can do it,’” Cummings said.

To help with the memorization, Cummings incorporated more rehearsals. While RTI averages 14 rehearsals per play, there are about 19 intense four-hour rehearsals to gear up for “Wrecks.”

“It’s really been about developing this character,” said Cummings. “It’s about this guy, and Chris is not like this guy at all.”

Conquering challenges

Memorization isn’t the only challenge, says Nickerson.

Edward Carr is a successful business man and a heavy smoker. Chris Nickerson’s never smoked a day in his life.

To prepare, Nickerson and Cummings spent rehearsals sitting across from each other; Nickerson would mimic Cummings’ movements with a cigarette.

“Suddenly he went from someone who didn’t know how to hold a cigarette to within one week, he was a smoker,” said Cummings.

Because Cinemapolis doesn’t allow smoking within its premises, Nickerson has to pretend to smoke.

“It would have been easier for me if I could just start smoking, and then just do it when I started the play,” Nickerson said, “but to pretend smoke when I have never smoked, but not really smoke… I was really nervous because I don’t know how to smoke.”

That’s not the only challenge Nickerson faced.

“I’m naturally a very airy type of person, light on my feet, and we both felt that Ed was a more grounded person,” said Nickerson.

Nickerson started wearing bright green three-pound weights on his ankles during rehearsals. He also started wearing a back brace, glasses, a suit and a tie to help him feel more confident and successful.

“Like he said, he’s a very airy person and he was just bouncing around,” said Cummings.

Standing out from the crowd

Since the Readers’ Theatre is an independent not-for-profit, RTI doesn’t have to deal with commercial pressures when choosing its plays. Cummings said she chooses great plays that she can live with and talk about passionately.

“When I first read this play, I was just like, ‘What a beautiful love story. This is so unlike Neil LaBute. Where is this going?’” said Cummings. “And I got to the end, I was like… ‘He’s done it again!'”

That independent mentality’s like the central message of “Wrecks.”

“[LaBute] limns the boundaries of exploring the views society thinks is acceptable and his heart’s desires,” Cummings said. “The message of this play is to do what you think, not what society thinks.”

“Wrecks″ was written by Neil LaBute and directed by Anne Marie Cummings, starring Chris Nickerson; with music by Hank Roberts and the band Phonetix. It will be performed from Nov. 21-23 at Cinemapolis on 120 East Green Street in Ithaca, N.Y. 

A 15-minute pre-recorded interview session with playwright Neil LaBute will be screened following each performance. Niles Gourmet owner Sandie Becker will be serving samples of her chocolate sweet potato ravioli with a brown butter sage in the lobby of Cinemapolis on Nov. 23.

Tickets can be purchased at www.thereaderstheatre.com. Advance tickets are $10 for students and $12 for adults. 

'wrecks' by neil labute, presented by the readers' theatre of ithaca

Readers’ Theatre’s ‘Photograph 51’ opens Friday at Cinemapolis

The Readers’ Theatre of Ithaca will begin its 2014-15 season at 8 p.m. this Friday at Cinemapolis with Anna Ziegler’s historical scientific drama “Photograph 51.”

Directed by RTI’s founder and artistic director, Anne Marie Cummings, “Photograph 51” is an 90-minute play about the struggles of a female scientist in a male-dominated world.

Marissa Biondolillo of the Readers' Theatre's "Photograph 51" plays Dr. Rosalind Franklin, known for her work on DNA. (Photo courtesy of Anne Marie Cummings)

Marissa Biondolillo of the Readers’ Theatre’s “Photograph 51” plays Dr. Rosalind Franklin, known for her work on DNA. (Photo courtesy of Anne Marie Cummings)

At its nucleus is Rosalind Franklin (Marissa Biondolillo), an English chemist known for her deoxyribonucleic acid research. Her X-ray diffraction images helped Francis Crick (David Romm), James Watson (Cole Long) and Maurice Wilkins (Jacob Garrett White) prove the structure of the double helix — cracking the code to the meaning of life.

“Photograph 51” is Ziegler’s diorama, filled with six moving pieces in the quadraladeral 16-by-4 inch stage at Cinemapolis. The play was written for UC Santa Barbara’s third annual Scientist, Technologists and Artists Generating Exploration International Script Competition. Ziegler chose Franklin as her focal point, developing an intricate and multilayered script around her.

“This is a fascinating script, but it divides time in a rapid way,” said Long. “The only time you know that time shifts is someone interjects and says, ‘Well, in fact…,’ ‘No, actually…’”

The events of the play are narrated by five scientists: Watson, Crick, Wilkins, Don Casper (Dave Dietrich) and Ray Gosling (Janet Jayne). Franklin swims into focus as they paint a picture of her life between January 1951 to February 1953.

Biondolillo said she could relate to Franklin because she has the same passion for acting as Franklin had for science.

“I’ve admired her since I was 17 because I was an AP biology kid and this was sort of my thing,” says Biondolillo. “On top of being a drama club nerd, I studied science really hard so when I got to play Rosalind Franklin, I was like, ‘Oh my God.'”

“Photograph 51” contains more than 60 short engaging scenes. The fractured nature of the play, however, made it a directorial challenge, said Cummings.

“…there’s a quarrel aspect in which the men are narrating historical events from a future perspective,” said Cummings in a pre-show talk. “And this right there means there’s a lot of challenges because the actors as an ensemble are making vocal shifts and physical shifts to help the audience follow what was happening.”

The fluidity of time and space makes “Photograph 51” seem like a motion picture.

“When I first got a hold of this script, I thought of it as a ‘Sherlock Holmes’ film,” said Cummings.

“This script is a real privilege to work on,” adds Long. “It’s rare to find a play with this crystalline clarity among its complexity, its emotional depth while still being respectful to the fact that these people are scientists and working on a technical subject, never letting the characters and emotions — which are immense in the play — without letting them obscure or overshadow the importance of the work that they are doing.”

“Even within the play, you’re not sure what’s true,” says White.

 Although “Photograph 51” was based on historical events, Cummings and Ziegler take some artistic liberties with the play.

Gosling, who’s credited for taking “photograph 51” — which clearly shows the double helix in a DNA molecule, is a man; however, his character in Cummings’ adaption is played by a woman. This adds another dynamic to the play, says Jayne.

“It’s interesting because you kind of have to pretend to be a man in this environment to succeed,” said Jayne. “But in my mind, I can see and sympathize with what [Rosalind is] going through.”

Dietrich, who plays Casper — a doctoral student at Yale who corresponded with Franklin over letters, said he didn’t know if there was any romance in the real-life relationship between Casper and Franklin.

“I started to do research, but stopped pretty quickly because the story of Don Casper and Rosalind Franklin,” Dietrich said. “I’m not sure he even met her rather than the events that happened [over the play].”

Long said he researched the living Watson from the past 10 to 20 years.

“The thing I found really fascinating is that I don’t think the play paints him as this really heroic figure, but he’s like, ‘I quite like the play. I think there’s a lot of truth to it,’” Long said.

Ziegler’s “Photograph 51” won the 2008 STAGE International Script Competition. It was one of the 50 plays considered for the Readers’ Theatre’s fifth season.

“By page 5, I was like, ‘This is it,’” said Cummings. “This is a play I want to do.”

Scripts are selected by the Readers’ Theatre script reading committee, which consists of Cummings, Millie Kuner, Susan Boutros, Alissa Heyman, George Holets, Jayme Kilburn, Linda H. Marks, Tim Perry, Laura Shannon, Peter Stein and Gary Weissbrot.

“It’s kind of a gift for the audiences and the actors because the details won’t get lost,” Cummings said.

“Photograph 51” was written by Anna Ziegler and directed by Anne Marie Cummings, starring Marissa Biondolillo, Cole Long, David Romm, Janet Jayne, Jacob Garrett White and Dave Dietrich; with music by Hank Roberts. A staged reading will be performed from Sept. 26-28 at Cinemapolis on 120 East Green Street in Ithaca, N.Y. 

Before and after the Readers’ Theatre’s performance of “Photograph 51,” Ports of New York Port will be providing wine samples in the Cinemapolis Lobby. A 15-minute pre-recorded Skype session with playwright Anna Ziegler will be screened following each performance.

Tickets can be purchased at www.thereaderstheatre.com. Advance tickets are $10 for students and $12 for adults. 

To read my preview in The Ithaca Voice, click here. 

‘Easy Prey’: kids falling through the cracks of bullying and mental illness

THE FINAL POSTER EASY PREY_low rez

Even if you haven’t lived through the Columbine High School shootings, the Virginia Tech massacre, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the UC Santa Barbara shooting, or the more than five dozens mass shootings in the last three decades, Anne Marie Cummings’ short film “Easy Prey” is easy to relate to.

Written by Cummings, Evan Stewart Eisenberg and Effie Johnson, the 37-minute film is “The Laramie Project” of school shootings. “Easy Prey” is a fictional story centered on six monologues, but that doesn’t mean it’s less real. If anything, the film’s direct interviews offers an immediacy that we don’t always get with these tragedies.

Edited by Marilyn Rivchin, the film follows a dramatic mockumentary style, featuring five upstate New York actors and one New York City actor. When the film begins, we meet Paula (Brenda Aulbach), a distraught schoolteacher who was there when 17-year-old Josh (Cole Long) shot track star Adriel before committing suicide.

“How could Josh — one of my students — one of my own students, do such a mindless thing,” says Paula.

Directed and filmed by Cummings, “Easy Prey” allows us to delve into the minds of the teachers, parents, friends and innocent bystanders. Mrs. Meyers (Moira Haupt) still talks to her son Adriel even though he’s deceased. His best friend Carl (Ian Whitt) says Josh has changed in the last six months prior to the incident. Cafe owner Dale (Tim Mollen) says the shootings are part of a larger culture where people don’t really communicate.

These messages are reinforced in Sage Francis’ poignant indie hip hop single, “The Best of Times,” and Hank Roberts’ atmospheric song “Peaceful Mind,” which underscores the film.

Cummings lays out her film like a game of “Clue”; each monologue is peppered with nuggets about what happened while providing commentary on bullying and gun violence.

Math teacher Ethan (Tim Perry) questions how Josh could have gotten a gun. According to a Mother Jones’ study, almost 50 percent weapons of weapons involved in U.S. mass shootings between 1982 and 2012 were obtained legally.

“It’s gotten to the point that I dread logging into CNN every morning because I don’t want to hear or see another shooting,” says Ethan.

“Easy Prey” isn’t an easy film to watch; it’s never easy to watch bullying. But it forces us to look at the hard truths — the aftermath of these massacres beyond the 30-second soundbites. Even when the news forgets, people remember and live on.

As Francis raps in “The Best of Times,” “It’s not the end of the world.” Even though it might feel like it.

“Easy Prey” will be screened at Cinemapolis at 7 p.m. on October 1. The actors and writers will be available for a Q&A following the free screening. The film will be available online from October 2, 2014 to October 2, 2015.

The film was produced by the Readers’ Theatre of Ithaca in association with the PACERS National Bullying Prevention Center.

The modern Shakespearean tragedy: ‘Coriolanus’ vs. ‘House of Cards’

No one has to tell us that there’s something rotten in the state of Washington. Congressional disapproval’s at 80 percent.

But “Hamlet,” “Richard III” and “Macbeth” aren’t the only Shakespeare plays the popular Nexflix drama, “House of Cards,” can be compared to.

There are many similarities between Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” and Beau Willimon’s “House of Cards.”

  • Both leads — Caius Martius Coriolanus and Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) — have served their time. Caius Martius was the Roman soldier who led his troops to victory in the battle of Corioles. Underwood was the United States Democratic majority whip for the past 22 years.
  • Both Coriolanus and Underwood were expecting big promotions. Crowned “Coriolanus” after his victory, he was going to be a Roman consul. Underwood was going to be nominated Secretary of State under the reign of the 45th President of the United States, Garrett Walker (Michael Gill).
  • After not getting what they wanted, both exacted revenge, but the how is how these two men differ. Whereas Coriolanus is a soldier and general, Underwood is a politician. Coriolanus fled Rome and its fickle Roman people, organizing an attack against his former home. Underwood manipulates a more devious plot: to take control of the White House from within, by destroying the political careers of former acquaintances including those of his own party.

Those familiar with the Shakespeare play know Coriolanus’s fate. Meanwhile, Willimon builds a precarious “House of Cards” for his “Breaking Bad”-esqe anti-hero, Frank Underwood — hanging the sword of Damocles above his head as he sits closer and closer to the throne.

The sword’s going to fall eventually. But who will be sitting in the chair?

Season 1 and 2 of “House of Cards” is now streaming on Netflix. “House of Cards” was written by Beau Willimon, Andrew Davies and others, based on the 1990 BBC mini-series and the novels by Michael Dobbs. 

Coming to Cinemapolis: Neil LaBute’s ‘In a Forest, Dark and Deep’

Anne Marie Cummings and Evan Stewart Eisenberg in "Into the Forest, Dark and Deep." Photo taken by Wendy Houseworth.

Anne Marie Cummings and Evan Stewart Eisenberg in “In the Forest, Dark and Deep.” Photo courtesy of the Readers’ Theatre of Ithaca, taken by Wendy Houseworth.

A middle-aged woman sits on a hardwood floor, marked off by black tape. In front of her is a cardboard box and a pile of books — Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, Hemingway — which she packs and unpacks for the next 95 minutes.

Come March 7th through 9th, she’ll be sitting on a 16-by-4 inch platform — raised two feet in the air — in one of Cinemapolis‘s 90-seat theatres. But for now, Anne Marie Cummings of the Readers’ Theatre of Ithaca is rehearsing a dramatic staged reading of Neil LaBute’s psychological thriller “In a Forest, Dark and Deep.”

Directed by Ithaca College professor Cynthia Henderson, “In a Forest, Dark and Deep” features a sister/brother duo: Betty (Cummings), an English professor, and Bobby (Evan Stewart Eisenberg), a blue-collar carpenter. When her tenant suddenly abandons her cabin in the middle of the woods, Betty calls her estranged younger brother, Bobby, for physical and emotional support.

But siblings can be both your best friends and your worst enemies. They tease, bicker and ridicule. They know how to get under each other’s skin and how to hide the truth under a protective wrap of “maybes” and “I’m kiddings.” That’s what Betty and Bobby do, volleying barbs on everything from money to morals.

“I told them they’re almost liked caged animals,” says Henderson. “It’s like a couple of caged animals constantly trying to find out what the other is up to.”

LaBute’s funny, smart and witty dialogue lends itself to this. While Eisenberg adopts what he describes as a “guttural New York style blue-collar flow,” he articulates Bobby’s foul and astute observations. “Truth hurts,” he says early on, which quickly becomes a refrain of the play.

“I should have just called the moving guys,” says Betty. “I didn’t ask for a free hour of therapy.”

But lucky for us, she didn’t. As Bobby emotionally probes into the mind and actions of his sister, Cummings becomes LaBute’s Russian nesting doll — revealing hidden layers while illustrating her range and dexterity as an actor.

Cummings, the Readers’ Theatre’s founder and artistic director, starred as Abbey Prescott in the company’s performance of LaBute’s “Mercy Seat” last year. She said that role was a piece of cake compared to Betty.

“This is by far the most challenging role,” says Cummings. “I mean, it really calls on everything for an actor because the trick with this character is masking what’s underneath, but having what’s underneath there and having it really be there, and not forgetting, but just trusting that it is.”

To prepare her actors for the intricacies of their roles, Henderson said she asked them nosy and personal questions about their characters.

“It’s very dysfunctional, but there is a sibling love and need there that could get lost in the arguments, and so I wanted to bring forward the care they have for each other even if they don’t want to admit it,” Henderson said.

That affection is visibly there when Cummings smacks Eisenberg with her script and when Eisenberg pleads and comforts her. They dance around each other with both action and language and at one moment, Bobby compare themselves with wolves.

Like wolves, they’re at each other’s throats at various points of the play, but they also have a fierce loyalty to one another. Sure, they have their disagreements — which initially transcended the play.

“[Anne Marie Cummings] was looking at me like, ‘Is this guy out of his mind? Is he playing the role?'” says Eisenberg on their first rehearsal together. “All it was was I was just standing my ground.”

Cummings, who cast “In a Forest, Dark and Deep,” said she had Eisenberg in mind for the challenging role of Bobby. Eisenberg was the male lead in “Soul Mates,” a play written and directed by Cummings, and performed as part of the Readers’ Theatre’s 2013 summer series.

“I chose this play for the Readers’ Theatre so any play that I choose is usually a play because I think of people in the community who are going to be right for it and are going to like it,” she said.

LaBute’s “In a Forest, Dark and Deep” first premiered in 2011 at West End’s Vaudeville Theatre in London. It will be the Readers’ Theatre’s first play at their new downtown location in Cinemapolis.

“In a Forest, Dark and Deep” was written by Neil LaBute and directed by Cynthia Henderson, starring Anne Marie Cummings and Evan Stewart Eisenberg; with music by Hank Roberts. A staged reading will be performed from March 7-9 at Cinemapolis on 120 East Green Street in Ithaca, N.Y.

Tickets can be purchased at www.thereaderstheatre.com. Advance tickets are $10 for students and $12 for adults. Tickets will be $12 for students (with student ID) and $15 for adults at the door.

Reader’s Theatre updates Mamet’s ‘Oleanna’

OLEANNA_PRESS_7914_BW_LR (2)They say to never leave your cell phones on during a play because it interrupts the actors’ concentration, but someone’s phone kept ringing in The Readers’ Theatre dramatic reading of Oleanna.

John (Tim Perry), the nearly tenured professor who is in the process of buying a house, is talking with his wife on his cell phone. Meanwhile, his student Carol (Darcy Jo Martin) competes for his time.

Director Anne Marie Cummings’ adaption of David Mamet’s 90-minute play begins like Britney Spear’s music video, “Baby One More Time.” Carol is sitting in the classroom with a clock ticking loudly. John’s phone conversations are boring her. This after-class meeting between Carol and John becomes the catalyst for John’s undoing. Carol, who says she doesn’t understand the professor’s book, solicits John for clarification on her grades, claiming she’s too stupid to learn. Accepting the challenge, John offers to give Carol an A if she meets him in his office. This compromising act puts John in a sticky position; in their next confrontation, Carol has filed a sexual harassment complaint about John to the university’s tenure committee.

Cummings modernized Mamet’s work by incorporating cell phones into the production. John is arguing with his wife on his cell phone while Carol is texting on her smart phone. The cell phone’s cherry ringtone becomes a clever device of comic relief, cutting the tension on the stage.

While Cummings chose not to incorporate music into this reading, the steady metronome of a clock creates an uneasy feeling. As each act progresses, the ticking noises grow quicker and more irregular until they finally disappear. The binary beats are reminiscent of those in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “A Tell Tale Heart,” building a sense of foreboding and desperation as the story becomes more and more disturbing. However, just as the audience becomes comfortable with the familiar ticking, it stops. That silence becomes more unsettling than the timer.

Although Cummings’ Oleanna is a dramatic reading, the sparse props — a chair, bench and desk — make it seem like a play. Even the actors’ scripts become extended props, doubling as notes typically found in a classroom setting. From time to time, Martin uses the script as extended pointer fingers, jabbing accusations at Perry. At other times, the script takes on the role of Carol’s complaint. Martin and Perry utilize the scripts so skillfully and creatively that as the show progresses, you forget the actors hold their scripts in front of them.

While John and Carol could easily be hated, Perry and Martin mitigate the characters’ unlikability. John stutters through his conversations with his wife that his inability to finish a sentence makes him seem powerless. Meanwhile, Martin is so convincing as a victim that it’s jarring to see her as John’s prosecutor, destroying his credibility as a professor. While both characters are unsympathetic, Perry and Martin’s portrayal allows us to understand them — even if we don’t like them.

Although it’s been almost 11 years since David Mamet’s three-act play Oleanna first premiered on stage, Mamet’s words are still controversial, challenging thoughts on sexual harassment in the school environment. Cummings, Martin and Perry capture that tension, making it palpable to the voyeurs in the audience.

“Oleanna” was read by The Readers’ Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y., from February 22 to 24. It was directed by Anne Marie Cummings.

‘Obamatry’ gets standing O

We’ve heard President Barack Obama sing “Call Me Maybe” thanks to autotune, editing and YouTube. Actor and poet Darian Dauchan takes that one step further using the assets of technology.

Armed with a slideshow projection screen, a MacBook Pro laptop, a looper/phrase sampler, headphones and microphone, Dauchan performed “Obamatry” — the 90-minute spoken-word multimedia show he wrote on Obama’s first term as president — last evening on the intimate thrust stage at the Kitchen Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y.

He launched into “Damn You Barack Obama, You Pretty Motherfucker,” which he’d originally performed at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City more than five years ago. As the colorful language implies, the poem both praises and criticizes America’s first black president — displaying Dauchan’s way with words.

His love letter to America, “She’s Just Not That Into” — a play on Al Green’s song “Let’s Stay Together” — editorializes Obama’s thoughts using the same pallet of language as “Damn You Barack Obama, You Pretty Motherfucker”: “I don’t need to remind you that half the shit I’m dealing with is from you fucking around with your old boyfriend for the last eight years,” he says.

Dauchan is funny and satirical as he argues with himself, embodying both the liberal and conservative point of views, or parodying Shakespeare’s Hamlet, arguing “To Vote or Not to Vote?”

He’s sharp and poignant as he deals with racism and the war in Afghanistan, making you laugh, cry, question and think, “Damn you, Darian Dauchan, you eloquent and charismatic motherfucker. Why you got to be so talented? I’m so in love with you.”

“Obamatry” is written and performed by Darian Dauchan, and directed by Jennifer McGrath.

Jesus’ ‘Godspell’ knocks on today’s door

Despite more than 20 centuries since the birth of Christ, the values and teachings of Jesus still ring true in contemporary terms — or at least that’s what the new revival of Stephen Schwartz’s timeless musical “Godspell” proves.

Under the direction of Daniel Goldstein, the formerly famous off-Broadway production portrays the ‘gospel according to Matthew’ in modern times. The opening prologue featured the cast sporting backpacks, jackets, handbags and other accessories labeled with the names of scholars, philosophers, religious leaders and forward thinkers such as Socrates, Aquinas, Galileo and L. Ron Hubbard, but cast members were also calling and texting on their phones and BlackBerrys. Later in the musical, a reference is made to Steve Jobs in heaven as well as the iPad tablet being the latest version of Bible texts. Other mentions of current events and people include the Occupy Wall Street movement, Donald Trump, Gaddafi’s death and Obama’s stimulus package.

In addition to modernizing the musical by referencing current events, “Godspell” also adopts a youthful and energetic vibe because of the young cast, which stars 24-year-old Hunter Parrish as Jesus, Wallace Smith as Judas, and “Hannah Montana” star Anna Maria Perez De Tagle, “Glee” star Telly Leung, Celisse Henderson, George Salzar, Lindsay Mendez, Morgan James, Ubo Aduba, and Nick Blaemire as disciples. Clad in jeans and a white button down shirt over his white t-shirt, Parrish lacks the long, flowing robes or long brown, wavy hair one might typically envision with Jesus. However, Parrish, best known for his character Silas Botwin in the television series “Weeds,” brings charisma and energy to his performance, becoming the magnetic individual that everyone wants as a friend. He does this by drawing other cast members as well as audience members with his infectious smiles, leaps in the air and laughter.

The contemporary feel of characters and materials, the use of impersonations, props and charades becomes a new way to retell Jesus’s parables as well as teach His rules, lessons and beatitudes. George Salazar’s narration becomes comical as he voices for Lindsay Mendez as she lip syncs to his words. Other scenes also have a similar tongue-in-cheek commentary, such as when Leung impersonates famous movie scenes such as Scarlett O’Hara’s (Vivien Leigh) phrase — “I will never go hungry again” — in the 1939 film “Gone with the Wind.” In another memorable scene, pieces of newsprint are used to create the head, arms, legs and torso of the man who is eventually saved by the Good Samaritan.  Similarly, lights and triangular materials are used to replicate the talking heads and mouths of the Pharisees who questioned Jesus.

Despite the light-heartedness and storytelling at the center of Act I, the conclusion of Act II takes on a more somber note. This is where Judas’s inevitable betrayal takes place as well as Jesus’s breakdown. “Could you not stay awake for one hour?” Jesus tells his disciples after he comes back to find them asleep. The “Finale” is particularly emotional, showing Parrish raised on a crucifix, ending with Smith and the rest of the cast carrying his limp body off stage.

The fact that the Circle in the Square theatre showcases ‘theatre in the round’ adds to the intimate element of the production. Julia Mattison, Morgan James’ understudy, comments on this “circular” element of the theatre firsthand after she says her lyrics, “I’m going to the front of the theatre” in the number “Turn Back O Man.” (“There is not front, there’s only this circle,” Mattison said.) Yet the stage provides the audience with a forum to see Jesus’s stories unfold — and the stories would be seen differently from every vantage point. Audience members are invited on stage at various points in the performance, and the orchestra, which consists of guitar, bass and piano players, are scattered among the audience. Trap doors beneath the stage are also utilized effectively to create a water site for Jesus’s baptism in the opening number “Prepare Ye” as well as trampolines for the cast to jump on.

Despite 40 years since it was last performed on the Broadway stage, “Godspell” is sure to entertain generations to come in its contemporary 2011 revival.

“Godspell” is performed at the Circle in the Square on W. 50th St. next to the Gershwin Theatre in New York City. Tickets can be purchased here.