Helen

February 13 - 23, 2003
Thursday - Sunday 7:30pm
The Annex Theatre

conceived, designed and directed by: Theodora Skipitares
music by: Arnold Dreyblatt
additional music by: Tim Schellenbaum
lighting: Pat Dignan
dramaturgy: Andrea Balis
video: Kay Hines
technical design: David Adams, Michael Kelly & Jane Catherine Shaw
choreography: Alissa Mello
featuring: Billy Clark, Michael Kelly, Chris Maresca, Alissa Mello, DJ Potter, Sarah Provost, Erin Ruddell, Mariana Sadovska & Amanda Villalobos


HELEN, the newest multimedia theater production conceived, designed and directed by Theodora Skipitares, relates a lesser-known version of the legend of Helen of Troy. Skipitares is well-known for her mastery of large-scale puppets as well as miniatures. This production employs several styles of shadow puppets styled after the line drawings of ancient Greek pottery, together with Bunraku puppetry, a Bengali painted background scroll and huge puppets projected with video imagery.

The myth of the most beautiful woman on earth is so provocative it is hard not to be enthralled by it. Skipitares was, but rather than base her play on the familiar version from Euripides' "The Trojan Women," she drew upon a variation from Euripides' "Helen," together with stories from the lyric poet Stesichoros and early fragments from Ovid on birth of Helen.

The play begins with Helen's birth story: Zeus comes to Earth disguised as a swan and rapes Leda, who lays an egg from which Helen hatches (as was depicted in Leonardo da Vinci's painting "Leda and the Swan," among others). The "alternate" myth of Helen is actually a survival story. Zeus foments the Trojan War in order to lighten the world of men. Hera, suspicious that Zeus was starting a war for his own reasons and using Helen as an excuse, makes a perfect living likeness of Helen out of a cloud and places it with the unsuspecting Paris. This phantom likeness goes to Troy and the real Helen is spirited by Hera to Egypt for 19 years to wait out the war. In the last century, this sojourn was the subject of Richard Strauss' notoriously difficult opera, "Helen in Egypt." Euripides, in "Helen," makes an ironic antiwar statement that the two sides were fighting over a cloud.

The epic is mostly told visually. We watch the birth of Helen, her suitors' wooing, her marriage to Menelaus, and Zeus' plotting a war and taking a young beautiful Prince, Paris, to a rigged beauty contest. This is a competition among three goddesses--Hera, Athena and Aphrodite--with an apple for the winner and Paris to be the judge. Played by sixteen-foot projection puppets, each of the goddesses tries to woo Paris to her side. Hera promises him the Emperorship of all of Asia; Athena offers him endless wisdom and victory in every battle he will ever fight. Aprodite wins (as we would have expected; she is the most seductive), because she offers him Helen.

In the next scene, Paris and Helen cross toward Troy in a miniature boat. As Hera discloses to the audience that she has made a likeness of Helen and hidden her in Egypt, we meet a walking Helen ghost. From there on, the plot draws mainly from the Iliad: As the Greek fleet is mobilized, Menelaeus and Agamemnon make a roll call of 1200 ships. A twenty-one foot shadow screen ("almost Cinerama," says Skipitares) with fifty shadow puppets shows one day's battle in the Trojan War.

Finally, there is a Trojan Horse construction whose belly reveals a tiny puppet stage. The "phantom" Helen, perversely, is rooting for the Greeks; she looks at the Horse and pats it in the belly, knowing that men are inside. She mimics the voices of the men's wives. A soldier inside almost gives the plot away and Odysseus has to strangle him. Inevitably, this is followed by the taking of Troy and enslavement of the Trojan Women.

This play is a fully-realized version of a work Skipitares initiated for the Chetana Arts Festival in Calcutta, India this past November. The Director of the fest, Suman Mukherjee, had met her briefly in NY with help of Arts International. For this engagement, she was only able to bring two company members (Alissa Mello, who is now the piece's choreographer, and Michael Kelly, now a puppeteer and contributor of additional design) and a twelve-minute shadow sequence battle scene. A preliminary version of the piece was created there. Skipitares' English-language prologue was translated into Bengali by Suman Mukherjee, who handed it to Dukushaym, an elderly scroll painter who lives in a small village sixty miles from Calcutta. In Bengali storytelling, a series of paintings (resembling film frames) are rendered on a 25-foot scroll. When the storyteller orates the narrative, he points to the characters on the unwinding spooled painting. Bengali storytelling, with its ancient tales, is Homeric in character.

Dukushaym's scroll will now be background for the prologue of the piece, which will be performed in English by Ukrainian singer Mariana Sadovska, employing a Balkan singing style. Sadovska is a featured performer of the Polish experimental theater group Gardzenice and has appeared at La MaMa in productions of Yara Arts Group. Following the prologue, the play progresses in scenes which tell the story through masks and puppets of various styles, including Shadow, Bunraku, and cloth puppets with video projections. Music is by Arnold Dreyblatt, a Berlin-based American composer. The score is very powerful rhythmically and has been recorded by musicians from Bang on a Can. Tim Schellenbaum, a veteran sound designer of La MaMa, has provided additional music.

Ms. Skipitares has designed the production. Technical design is by David Adams, Michael Kelly and Jane Catherine Shaw. David Adams also contributed a seven-foot Trojan Horse that bristles with a textured assemblage of 130 GI Joe dolls, in the style of 16th century painter Arcimboldo. Dances are choreographed by Alissa Mello and performed by Billy Clark. Lighting is by Pat Dignan. The puppeteers are Sarah Provost, Chris Maresca, Michael Kelly, Alissa Mello, Amanda Villalobos and Erin Ruddell.

The experience is extremely spectacular, with an emphasis on gesture and music rather than dialogue. While Skipitares' La MaMa plays since the mid-'90s have mostly required theatergoers to drift around the Annex Theater, this one keeps its audience in its seats.

Theodora 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.

When "Micropolis" (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. Her "Optic Fever" (2001) was 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 and had a return engagement that year. Her last production at La MaMa was "The Rise and Fall of Timur the Lame" (2002), a rendering of Christopher Marlowe's "Tamburlaine" in multi colored large scale shadow puppets with a solo dance on Bhagavad Gita by Sanjeeva Suvarna, one of south India's most renowned traditional dancers. 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.

Composer Arnold Dreyblatt was born in NYC and has been based in Europe since 1984. He is presently living in Berlin. He studied Film and Video Art at SUNY Buffalo (M.A. from the Institute for Media Studies) with Woody and Steina Vasulka and later Music Composition with Pauline Oliveros (1974), La Monte Young (1974-76), and Alvin Lucier at Wesleyan University, where he received an M.A. in Music Composition in 1982. From 1979-97, he was director and composer for his music ensemble, "The Orchestra of Excited Strings." In 1991, Dreyblatt composed "Who's Who in Central & East Europe 1933," a co-production between Inventionen '91/DAAD, Berlin and Wiener Fest Wochen, Vienna. He has received commissions from "Ars Electronica", Linz (1988), Oeyvaer Desk, Den Haag (1989), Prime Foundation, Groningen (1989), DAAD- Inventionen '91, Berlin (1990), Werkstaat Berlin, 1991, Podewil/US Arts Festival, Berlin (1993), Bang in A Can, New York (1996) and Saarland Radio (2001). His recordings have appeared on numerous labels. Recently, Dreyblatt has been increasingly involved in integrating archival and biographical texts with his sound work in performance and installation.

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