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.

Lisa D’Amour’s ‘Detroit’ breaks down the American dream

Although the streets of “Detroit” aren’t paved with gold, once upon a time, the Motor City roared with industry and music. Now, the city’s bankrupt and the records skip — scratched by the ugly claws of anxiety and anger.

Written by Lisa D’Amour and directed by Anne Marie Cummings, the founder and artistic director of the Readers’ Theatre of Ithaca, the 90-minute dark comedy “Detroit” shows how the economic recession chewed up the Horatio Alger myth.  

As Ben (AJ Sage) and Mary (Effie Johnson) get to know their new neighbors, Kenny (Gary Weissbrot) and Sharon (Camilla Schade), through a series of backyard barbeques, we see a tangible desperation.

From left to right: Effie Johnson, AJ Sage, Camilla Schade and Gary Weissbrot in the Readers' Theatre's production of Lisa D'Mour's "Detroit"

From left to right: Effie Johnson, AJ Sage, Camilla Schade and Gary Weissbrot in the Readers’ Theatre’s production of Lisa D’Mour’s “Detroit”

Mary’s frazzled as she tries too hard to impress the older couple, Kenny and Sharon. She struggles to open a patio umbrella and to fit a coffee table through a door. From the audience’s vantage point, Johnson appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown as she handles the invisible props.

Meanwhile, her husband Ben, a self-proclaimed deadbeat, lost his banking job and decides to start his own online credit consulting business. It’s not doing so well. He’s still working on the website.

“I think we all know some older people who had a hard time with the economic downturn because jobs are harder to find,” Cummings said. “So I thought it was an important element to show in this play.”

Although D’Amour’s Obie Award-winning production was grounded in reality and inspired by the 2009 recession, “Detroit” holds many surrealist elements. Sharon remembers a dream where Ben grows younger and younger until he’s finally a baby. Mary repeats, “This is weird.”

“It starts with a dream,” said Cummings. “It ends with a dream. There’s a dream in the beginning. Mary says, ‘This is not a dream.’ And I think that’s the undercurrent emotion underneath the whole period of time.”

This dreamlike buoyancy is reinforced in D’Amour’s script. “Detroit” takes place on any corner of suburbia, along the “city of lights.” The streets are named Rainbow, Helium, Ultraviolet, and Sunshine. In fact, their entire neighborhood is named for its levity.

“Even the setting is giving a sort of ethereal nature with the Feather Boulevards and the bright houses,” said Sage. “It seems to be a more idyllic place than ever actually existed in the world.”

Like the streets and houses, the American dream is misleading. Immigrants flocking to see streets paved with gold only found that they were they were the ones to pave them. D’Amour’s haunting script reinforces this broken dream.

This gilded image hides the cavities and tumors within the rotting city. Sharon and Kenny admit they are “white trash” (Sharon’s works at a phone bank; Kenny in a warehouse). But they want something more. “I’m 55 years old and I’m still eating ramen noodles for dinner a lot,” says Sharon.

They all aren’t where they imagined. Mary, a paralegal by day, self medicates with alcohol and dreams of camping.

Ben falls through a deck and breaks his leg.

Cummings places the play in the realm of Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee and the theatre of the absurd.

“Unlike a modern play like ‘God of Carnage’ by Yasmina Reza,” Cummings said, “these couples for the most part aren’t hiding truths from one another and what connects them are their loneliness in a world where communication isn’t what it used to be.”

Cummings breaks down space and communication further by breaking the forth wall. Johnson, Sage, Schade and Weissbrot face the audience rather than each other.

“You have to use your ears and imagine the other person’s face,” said Sage.

“Detroit” is very lyrical, moving between dream and reality — stationary repetitious movement and dance. At one point, Schade and Weissbrot sway in place as Johnson and Sage converse. At another point, Johnson and Schade are running in place at one side of the stage as Sage and Weissbrot tango in another. The rhythm of Johnson and Schade’s stomping quickens, creating a pounding desperation.

And before you know it, the record’s over.

“Detroit” was written by Lisa D’Amour and directed by Anne Marie Cummings, starring AJ Sage, Effie Johnson, Camilla Schade and Gary Weissbrot. Assistant director Chris Dell narrates the play; with music by Hank Roberts. A staged reading will be performed from May 2-4 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. “Detroit” is the last play in the Readers’ Theatre’s 2013-2014 season.

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.

The Reduced Works of William Shakespeare

“Beware the ides of March” because a month later on the 15th of April at 8 p.m. at The State Theatre, the Reduced Shakespeare Company “prevented” “The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged.”

The comedic trio, made up of narrator and host Mick Orfe, resident Shakespearean scholar and secret twi-hard Michael Faulkner and the young Google-and-Wikipedia-educated Matt Rippy, promised to present the complete works of William Shakespeare, all 37 Shakespearean plays in 97 minutes. Pointing to all the exits in event of an emergency, Orfe pulled a gas mask out of his pocket, thus preparing the audience for a fun, laugh-filled flight into the life of Shakespeare’s plays.

To thread together the Shakespearean experience, the trio gave a haphazard performance as three stooges who barely knew what they were doing. Starting this endeavor to conquer the Bard’s plays, Matt Rippy gave an informative index-card presentation on Shakespeare’s history; however, when Shakespeare begins to invaded Poland in 1939 and ends up committing suicide, hilarity ensues.

In a true commedia de arte style, the three stooges used a variety of props as well as slapstick humor. In their version of Romeo and Juliet, while Faulkner, Rippy and Orfe shared the roles of Benvolio, Romeo, Juliet, Tybalt, Prince Escalus, the nurse and the apothecary, wigs, skirts, swords, crowns and other quick costume changes were used to illustrate the different characters. While male actors frequently played multiple characters as well as all the female leads in the Elizabethan era, the fact that Rippy as Juliet and Orfe as Romeo refuse to share a kiss becomes a great source of humor. Furthermore, as Rippy and Orfe illustrate the famous “balcony scene” where Romeo visits Juliet at night, Faulkner finds himself as the surrogate balcony as Rippy places his skirt over Faulkner’s hunched figure.

Yet Romeo and Juliet is not the only disastrously hilarious performance of Shakespeare. When Rippy mistakes the word “moor” to mean the dock where one ties ships, the three person RSC cast transition to a rap about Othello.

In an attempt to abridge much of Shakespeare’s material, the trio reduces Shakespeare’s 16 comedies from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream to The Tempest to one giant blurry mess, a segment that the RSC calls “Four Weddings and a Transvestite.” Meanwhile, the RSC combines the Bard’s historical plays from Henry IV to King Lear in a football game representing the passing of the crown.

Covering 36 plays in Act One, a brief intermission followed; by then, Rippy didn’t want to finish the last play Hamlet, fleeing from the stage as Faulkner chases him. “I will not bring vomitless Shakespeare to people of Ithaca,” Rippy tells The State Theatre audience as people laugh. A running gag for Rippy’s female cross-dressing characters is that they continue to barf on the audience.

The three-man crew then becomes a one-man entertainment while Orfe does standup. Singing Dylan’s piece “Blowing in the Wind” on the guitar while attempting to cover the Bard’s 157 sonnets, Orfe passes a sheet throughout the audience hoping for Faulkner and Rippy to return.

Luckily, Faulkner drags Rippy back onstage, convincing the other that they will visit Ithaca’s Buttermilk Falls; however, Faulkner also confides to the audience that Rippy is unaware of the fact that there is no buttermilk in Buttermilk Falls.

The RSC also found other ways to personalize their performance in Ithaca, even making a Bombers reference, the school mascot of Ithaca College. While the RSC’s presentation was scripted, the trio continued to find ways to make “The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged” an interactive experience.

To view the complete tour dates of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, click here.

The Levon Helm Band captivates audience at The State Theatre

It is not often that one encounters a legend face to face, but when audience members filed in to see Levon Helm perform at 8 p.m. on March 5 in the State Theatre, they were sure to have that experience.

Recovering from his 1998 diagnosis of throat cancer, Levon Helm, who has spent his whole life dedicated to music, was told he would never sing again. But the 69-year-old musician is a true performer. Helm made a consecutive two-time Grammy-winning comeback with his 2007 release of “Dirt Farmer” for best traditional folk album and his 2009 release of “Electric Dirt” for best Americana album. Having worked with musicians like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash and influenced others, such as Elton John and Marc Cohn, Levon Helm remains an inspiration.

The Wood Brothers, a two-man band consisting of brothers Chris Wood on bass and Oliver Wood on guitar, provided the opening entertainment for the famed performer. While the duo could not quite match Helm’s skill as a multitalented musician, The Wood Brothers gave a solid performance in their folksy-blues style.

Chris Wood’s fingers created masterful moans with the cello, while his older brother Oliver Wood provided the lyrical and guitar accompaniment to songs such as “Tried and Tempted,” “Lovin’ Arms,” “Chocolate On My Tongue” and “Up Above My Head.”  Often, Chris Wood would play the harmonica or harmonize with his brother’s voice while simultaneously providing the walking bass lines to the songs. The Wood Brother’s hour-long set served as a brilliant opening act for The Levon Helm Band. They relaxed the audience with their mellow soft sounds.

The other members of The Levon Helm Band carried the vocals of most of the songs, but Helm had a maintained a quiet but powerful presence on stage. The original member of the rock group, the rest of the band was always moving with his rhythm as he kept the beat with his skillful drumming.

Brian Mitchell, a singer and musician for the band, whose voice was raspier than Levon’s, pleased the crowd with his frequent chromatic scales on the piano and head banging. While Mitchell switched between playing the piano and accordion between songs, other members of the band carried musical solos: Steven Bernstein on the trumpet, Clark Gayton on the trombone and Jay Collins and Erik Lawrence on the saxophone. They alternated between the brass solos in “Fannie Mae” and gave the song a lively, jazzier feel.

To the delight of audience members dancing in the aisles, The Levon Helm Band also performed some older, popular hits. “Long Black Veil,” originally featured on the band’s 1968 album “Music From Big Pink.” It was a crowd pleaser as Teresa Williams’ and Amy Helm’s powerful country voices belted out the lyrics. The band’s “Remedy” also began with screams of approval from the crowd, as it featured Jimmy Weider on acoustic guitar, with Larry Campbell performing a sick electric guitar riff. The angelic harmonies of Larry Campbell, Amy Helm and Teresa Williams were simply breathtaking when singing their rendition of The Grateful Dead’s “Attics Of My Life.”

Photo taken by Claudia Pietrazak for The Ithacan.

The highlight of the set was when Levon Helm traded his drumsticks for his mandolin and began singing “Deep Elem Blues.” It was endearing to watch Levon Helm and his daughter Amy Helm sway to the music, each leaning into a shared microphone. It was one of the most infectiously spirited tunes.

At the end, The Wood Brother’s were invited back onstage to sing the band’s 1968 hit “The Weight.” Like the performance began, the show ended with a full standing ovation from audience members, who filled the theatre with deafening applause.

Click here to see the article in The Ithacan. For more information on The Levon Helm Band and their Midnight Ramblings, click here.