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
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.