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

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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.

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.

‘The Imposter’: 99-minute ‘without a trace’ mystery with no answer

When director Bart Layton stumbled upon a real-life case in which a missing child appears to be recovered three years after his disappearance, he found the perfect story to portray in his documentary, “The Imposter.”

Told solely through narration from interviews, “The Imposter” revolves around two separate narratives: the disappearance of 13-year-old Nick Barclays from Antonio, Texas, in 1994 and the story of Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old Frenchman who posed as teenaged runaways across Europe. When Bourdin pretends to be Nick, three years after Nick disappeared, the stories of Frederic and the Barclays family intersect, and the Barclays family welcome Bourdin into their home in Texas.
Since the real Nick disappeared, the audience cannot discover what really happened to the boy, so there is a speculative element to “The Imposter.” The narrative structure of the film creates a sense of mystery, and the viewers are trying to figure out what happened to Nick as the story bounces back and forth between Nick and Bourdin. This is an effective technique to create a sense of drama for viewers who may not be familiar with the story, but it can be confusing when the characters are first introduced.

For a story about Nick, the visuals are limited to photographs and amateur family home videos where he is seen goofing off with a camera. The filmmakers attempt to solve their dilemma by telling Nick’s story through Nick’s sister, Carey Gibson; his mother, Beverly Dollarhide; and his uncle, Bryan Gibson to reveal what Nick was really like as well as the circumstances of his disappearance.

Meanwhile, Frederic’s story is also difficult to illustrate. To solve this problem, the filmmakers induct a cast of silent actors as placeholders to dramatize the events Frederic relays in his interviews. Adam O’Brian plays Frederic when he is in a shelter in Spain, while Anna Ruben plays Carey when she goes to Spain to pick up whom she thinks is Nick, but is really Frederic. The actors move the pacing of the film, and separate it from the monotony of interviews.

The dramatizations were a clever way to illustrate the story; however, Bourdin wasn’t the only ‘imposter’ in the film. Sometimes the visuals didn’t match the storyline. During scenes when the re-enactors of the Barclay family and Bourdin are driving around San Antonio, mountains are visible in the background; mountains are not consistent with the geography in San Antonio. The mountains as well as the end credits indicate that the reenactments were shot in various parts of Arizona, not Texas, which lessens the film’s credibility.

If there is any truth to “The Imposter,” viewers learn that Layton knows how to direct a good story.

To see this review in The Ithacan, click here.