ODYSSEY: THE HOMECOMING, the newest multimedia
theater production conceived, designed and directed by Theodora Skipitares,
is the second part of her puppet trilogy on the Trojan War. Skipitares'
trilogy takes on the legend of the Trojan War in its entirety, including
the prewar and postwar periods. Last season, Skipitares' "Helen,
Queen of Sparta" dealt with the battle for Troy. The New York Times
(D.J.R. Bruckner) called it "as rich a 70-minute heartwarmer as one
could want." This year's "Odyssey: The Homecoming" will
tell the war's aftermath. Next year, Skipitares will do a piece about
the prelude to war, based on Euripides' "Iphigenia in Aulis."
The multimedia production transforms the 24 chapters of the Odyssey into
several individual shadow "screens" and other projection surfaces,
taking the audience through a physical journey of space and time. Odysseus
is treated as a returning combat veteran, traumatized and unable to "find
his way home." Using the writings of Boston psychiatrist Jonathan
Shay ("Achilles in Vietnam," "Odysseus in America"),
who has worked with Vietnam veterans for 30 years, the play will constantly
bring us to our own "post-war" situation and to an examination
of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The production features 50 shadow puppets, several "video puppets,"
projections of documentary war footage, and other styles of puppetry and
masks. The character of Odysseus is a five-foot Bunraku style puppet.
The score is a strongly percussive soundscape by Arnold Dreyblatt (with
Tim Schellenbaum). Some of the most amusing and delightful scenes, such
as the encounters with Cyclops and Circe (she turns men into pigs), are
rendered in delicately colored shadow puppets which appear to have come
to life from Greek vase paintings. The character of Penelope, performed
by Obie-award winner Leeny Sack as narrator, performs a prologue in front
of a Rajasthani scroll painting to introduce the play.
The production was workshopped this month in Delhi, at India Habitat
Centre, as part of Ishara International Theatre Festival. There, Skipitares
commissioned two Rajasthani scroll painters to create a 4' x 10' painting
of the Odyssey. Their creation will be backdrop for the play's prologue,
in which a light source will move along the painting, illuminating portions
of the epic.
The play itself will be extremely spectacular, with an emphasis on gesture
and music rather than dialogue. It opens with a video projection in which
Athena entreats her father, Zeus, to help her bring her beloved Odysseus
home. The hero has been away at war for 20 years. It is possible to infer
from the video that Athena is a wife or mother of a GI in Iraq, and that
she is pleading with President Bush to bring home her son. A masked dance
scene recounts a major childhood incident in Odysseus' life where his
thigh was gashed open by a wild boar (it's how he got his name, which
means born of pain).
Then the scene shifts to the voyage home, after the Trojan War.
Having lost 600 men and having been adrift at sea for ten years, Odysseus
is washed upon the shore of Phaecia, a friendly island. There, the people
offer solace and bring him to a banquet. Seeing him weeping, they ask
him to tell his story. He wants to tell them about how traumatized and
damaged he is, but he understands they would prefer to be entertained
with wondrous stories that avoid the horrors of war. So he begins an entertainment
sequence, rendered in shadow puppetry. Afterward, he is given a boat and
sent home to Ithaca, where he will take his palace back and reconcile
with his wife, Penelope.
While Skipitares' La MaMa plays since the mid-'90s have mostly required
theatergoers to drift around the Annex Theater, this one, like "Helen,
Queen of Sparta" before it, keeps its audience in its seats.
Music is by Arnold Dreyblatt, the Berlin-based American composer who
also scored "Helen, Queen of Sparta." 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, as in the earlier installment. The cast includes puppeteers Michael
Kelly, Chris Maresca, Alisa Mello, Bernadette Witzack, Bronwyn Bittetti
and Amanda Villalobos. Lighting is by Pat Dignan.
Theodora Skipitares became regarded as the most provocative miniaturist
working in New York following such formative works in the 1980's and '90s
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 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.
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.
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 2000, she
was a Fullfright Fellow in India and has returned to India frequently
to create new works.
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. 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.