|For miniaturist Theodora
Skipitares, the most dramatic stories in the world are found in the origins of
art and science. In "Optic Fever," her newest work, she dramatizes the
legacy of Renaissance painters in terms of the way we see. For a theater person,
she has an unusual mind: her viewpoint is often not one of aesthetics but of engineering.
According to Skipitares (citing Vasari's "Lives of the Artists"), the
Renaissance ushered in the engineering concept of perspective--a breakthrough
based on geometric principles. This single leap of the mind set Leonardo Da Vinci
and his contemporary painter, the lesser-known but brilliant Paolo Uccello, far
ahead of their predecessors and forever changed the way mankind uses its eyes.
These two artists appear in the play as puppets, with Da Vinci played by a lifesized
robotic video puppet and Uccello and his family played by two-foot marionettes.
They head a cast made of scores of puppets, ranging in size from tiny to life-sized,
which populate two playing areas nestled inside each other. In this unique stage
environment, Skipitares unlocks for us the Renaissance's development of optical
systems and the scientific essence of this era when mankind opened its eyes to
new ways of sight.
are so highly regarded for their artfulness of design that her "scientific"
content is often overlooked. In "Optic Fever," she appears to have
been, quite literally, inspired by the scientific acuity of Leonardo da Vinci.
"His curiosity was so grand, so big!" she asserts, admiringly. Da
Vinci was, beside one of the Renaissance's greatest painters, possibly its greatest
engineering mind. Skipitares notes that he was also "Europe's greatest
anatomist" prior to the giants of that field who later emerged in 18th
century England. Skipitares' enthusiasm for the Science of Art comes through
more clearly in "Optic Fever" than in any of her previous works.
The piece is certainly an antidote to the myth of the artist as an ideopathically
helpless personality without a grasp or vision of nature and its realities.
To investigate the
source of Leonardo's greatness, Skipitares has five Freuds reading from their
psychoanalysis of him. She also has a "dance of the eyeballs," a
procession of puppets based on Leonardo's anatomical drawings, and sections
that deal with a fly's vision, the geometry of perspective, eye scanning
(an identification system far more foolproof than fingerprints) and Iridology
(the assessment of health and diseases through changes in the iris).
became regarded as the most provocative miniaturist now working in New York
following such formative works in the 1980's as "Micropolis," "Defenders
of the Code" and "The Radiant City." She made her La MaMa debut
with "Underground" (1992), a work which explored a wide variety of
subterranean cultures, from mineshafts to fallout shelters. David Richards (New
York Times) wrote, "She wants you to look hard and close into dark nooks
and spooky crannies. You'll discover all sorts of mini-revelations and Lilliputian
enchantments if you do." She went on to mythologize the history of medicine
with "Under the Knife I, II and III," all at La MaMa, between 1994
and 1996. This developing work was her first use of La MaMa's large Annex Theater
as an enveloping, multi-level installation as, in a series of 24 miniature
environments, she fabricated a spectacular interactive marketplace of medical
ideas through the ages.
Trained as a sculptor
and designer, Skipitares avoids the label puppeteer as too limiting in view
of her multi-media approach. Alisa Solomon (Village Voice), reviewing her "The
Age of Invention" (1985), claimed Skipitares fulfilled Gordon Craig's call
for Uebermarionette to replace actors because only puppets could convey the
"noble artificiality" he considered necessary for the stage. That
work had life-size puppets of Ben Franklin, Edison, and Michael O'Connor--a
20th century salesman who passed as a surgeon and performed operations in five
states. Skipitares' work has been cited for its particular and rigorous historicity.
She says that when she does research, she tries to find the false side of an
event or character, and upon finding it, uses it as a peephole into what might
be really true. This results in a chilling sort of theater, where real first-person
narrative becomes heightened through puppet theater, becoming as brazen and
atavistic as myths which are delivered side-by-side.
(1982), her first major work, was revived in 1992, the Village Voice (Pam Renner)
call it "the work of a possessed and clairvoyant miniaturist." The
work contained miniature scenes from urban life: some real, like an unnoticed
murder, some fanciful, like a dinosaur waking up on a superhighway. Her "Defenders
of the Code" (1987) was picked in the New York Times' "ten best plays"
list. It dramatized Plato's "Republic," Darwin's "Origins of
the Species," and James Watson's "Double Helix" with Bunraku-style
puppets. "The Radiant City" (1991) presented the legacy of master-builder
Robert Moses. Her "The Harlot's Progress" (1998) was a chamber opera,
with music and lyrics by Barry Greenhut, based on the engravings of William
Hogarth. The New York Times (Lawrence Van Gelder) wrote, "Like its inspiration,
'A Harlot's Progress' is striking, timely and admirable art." Her "Body
of Crime" (La MaMa, 1996) and "Body of Crime II" (La MaMa, 1999)
enacted scenes of women in prison from medieval times to the present.
Skipitares has been
repeatedly nominated for the American Theater Wing's special design award and
won the 1999 prize for "A Harlot's Progress." She has received
Guggenheim, Rockefeller and NEA grants. In 1999, she was a Fullbright Fellow
in India, collaborating on a theater production at Yakshagana Theater in
is conceived, designed, written and directed by Skipitares. Additional texts
are by David Adjami. The puppeteers are Sarah Provost, Preston Foerder,
Alissa Mello and Chris Maresca. Narrator is Michael Moran. The continuous
score is composed by David First. Lighting is designed by Pat Dignan and
video is designed by Kay Hines.
The musical score
by composer David First uses sound samples derived exclusively from authentic
Renaissance instruments which are then warped, morphed, and mangled to create
a dense, highly charged, yet melodic sonic landscape full of hypnotic droning
textures and polyrhythmic grooves. His opera, "The Manhattan Book of the
Dead, was presented by LaMaMa in 1995. Kyle Gann of the Village Voice wrote,
"The music grew and grew in scintillating, illusionary beauty long past
the point at which you thought it could still surpass itself." First's
music has been performed in New York at Experimental Intermedia, the Kitchen,
La MaMa, Roulette, Merkin Hall, Exit Art, the Knitting Factory, Bang on a Can
Festival, The Cooler, Tonic, and CBGB's. His works have been widely produced
in Europe. His grants and awards include the NEA, the Phaedrus Foundation,
Casio Inc. and the Yamaha Communications Center. He was a nominee for the Cal
Arts/Alpert award in 1994.