|"The Rise and Fall of Timur the Lame" is a new work with shadow puppetry
and dance by Theodora Skipitares. The core of the show is a rendering of Christopher
Marlowe's "Tamburlaine" in multi colored large scale shadow puppets,
but its apex is a solo dance on Bhagavad Gita by Sanjeeva Poojary, one of south
India's most renowned traditional dancers. Composer David First will perform
his original score live in the production.
The play is inspired by
Skipitares' experiences in 1999-2000 as a Fullbright Fellow in India where she
collaborated on a theater production in Bangalore which utilized Yakshagana
dance and South Indian puppetry.
The piece takes place in
several locations within La MaMa's Annex Theater, but centralizes in a gigantic
five-sided, sixty foot shadow screen that surrounds the audience in a kind
"Sensurround in shadow puppets," where this vigorous, super-active,
physical story will be presented in an experience of enveloping light, shadow
It is the first La MaMa production for South Indian dancer Sanjeeva Suvarna,
who is performing a solo dance on Bhagavad Gita, the well-known meditation
on war and action found in the Hindu epic Mahabarata. Poojary will dance Krishna,
accompanied by a score by instrumentalist David First and singer Lisa Kerrer,
both of whom will perform live. Poojary is a master of Yakshagana (Dance of
the DemiGods), a South Indian dance theatre form which incorporates unique
footwork, acrobatics and jumping movements with intensely colorful makeup and
costume. Yakshagana plays are often likened to the Kathakali plays of Kerala
and both are based on stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabarata. Poojary
is in NY for a month-long residency at La MaMa and is teaching an intensive
four-day workshop in Yakshagana there March 16 to 24. (Interested students
can get further information at www.lamama.org.)
Christopher Marlowe's blank
verse tragedy, "Tamburlaine the Great" (1587), depicts Tamburlaine
as a bloodthirsty, inhuman villain, in contrast to Rowe's play of 1702, where
the Turkmen Mongol conqueror was pictured as a calm, philosophic prince. Poe
also wrote on the emperor in a poem called "Tamerlaine."
Timur began his career
as a bandit-warrior with only a few companions, who subsisted on stealing sheep
from other tribes. In one sheep-stealing raid Timur was wounded in the leg
and shoulder. Afterward he could not bend his right knee or lift his right
arm, and so he became known as "the Lame." He established an empire extending
from India to the Mediterranean Sea. The names Tamburlane and Tamerlane are
European corruptions of Timur Lang ("Timur the Lame"). According
to the Encarta Encyclopedia, he was born April 10, 1336, at Kesh in Transoxiana
(present-day Uzbekistan). Between 1364 and 1370 he won control of Transoxiana,
and in the latter year declared the restoration of the empire of Genghis Khan,
whom he falsely claimed as his ancestor. By 1394 he had conquered Iran, Mesopotamia,
Armenia, and Georgia. In 1398 Tamerlane invaded India, where he captured Delhi
and massacred 100,000 inhabitants. In 1401 he took Syria from the Mamelukes,
and the following year defeated the Ottoman sultan Bayazid I. Tamerlane died
on February 18, 1405, near Shymkent (in present-day Kazakstan) while leading
an expedition against China, and was buried in Samarqand, his capital city.
His mausoleum, the Gur-e Amir, is one of Samarqand's great architectural monuments.
Although he was notorious
for his cruelty in war and for the many atrocities committed by his armies,
Tamerlane was also a lover of scholarship and the arts. His dynasty, the Timurids,
which ruled Transoxiana and Iran until the early 16th century, was noted for
its patronage of Turkish and Persian literature. One of his descendants, Babur,
founded the Mughal dynasty of India in 1526.
Skipitares 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. Her last production was "Optic Fever," a play on
Renaissance artist-scientists, devoted to the history and philosophy of how
we see. It played to packed houses in its initial run at La MaMa in January,
2001 and was reprised in June, 2001.