War at Home: Ancient Tale of Revenge and Regret

The New York times
March 28, 2007

In her recent work about the Trojan War, the puppeteer and storyteller Theodora Skipitares draws equivalents to current events. A program note for her new piece, “The Exiles,” asks us to think of Helen, whose kidnapping ignited the war, as “probably the first weapon of mass destruction.” But the play is less about her than about what happens when war comes home.

Last year’s “Trilogy,” which like this play used video, different sorts of puppets, actors and live music, began with Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia to ensure fair winds for his warships bound for Troy. His wife, Clytemnestra, never forgave him. “Trilogy” took up not only Iphigenia’s personal tragedy but also the seductions of battle, staged in an unforgettable display of shadow puppetry.

Photo: Richard Termine

As “The Exiles” begins, Orestes sleeps with his sister, Electra, at his side. It is 15 years after their father, Agamemnon, made his triumphant return from war and their mother, Clytemnestra, and Aegisthus, her lover, murdered him and condemned Orestes to death. Now, years later, commanded by Apollo, Orestes has avenged his father by killing Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. The action of this one-hour play is Orestes’ struggle with his guilt. Is he responsible for his mother’s death, or are the gods?

“The Exiles” feels incomplete. The life-size puppets with their impassive faces, manipulated by actors in dark clothing, give us Orestes and Electra driven by forces beyond their power, but missing are moments in which the characters stand, as Iphigenia did in “Trilogy,” human and unmasked. Without such a revelation, “The Exiles” falls short of the heart-rending cruelty for which we turn to Greek tragedy.

Still, “The Exiles” ends with a coup de théâtre that reminds us of Ms. Skipitares’s mastery: the sudden appearance of Apollo as a gigantic, bespectacled gold-lamé-clad puppet that to me bore a strange resemblence to Donald H. Rumsfeld. In Greek tragedy the deus ex machina reassures us that there is divine logic to even the most horrific events, but here, like Orestes, we are left bewildered and uncertain.

Photo: Richard Termine