New York

Theodora Skipitares

The Performing Garage

When Theodora Skipitares took The Mother and the Maid and The Venus Cafe to Amsterdam earlier this month, the audience loved Mother and hated The Venus Cafe. “I’m not sure why,” said Skipitares later, “but I think they expected more acting.” The audience mainly had theatre backgrounds, and seemed to accept certain conventions of the performance easily: the acid green wall of Venus, the props acting both as sets and costumes. Ingredients that an art crowd savor were taken for granted by an acting crowd. She thought perhaps that Mother was less autobiographical and that had something to do with it. But I think that isn’t the issue.

Both pieces deal with the transformation of women. Transformations that come in the subtle choices of their lives, in accepted social repressions. In Mother she profiles two women transplanted from their native Greece to urban life. Shown in slides and heard on tape, they narrate fairy tales of leaving their honored positions as skilled craftswomen in Greece (one a weaver, one an embroiderer) to become a sewing machine operator and a frankfurter vendor in New York City. The kind of women you’d pass without a second glance on Broadway everyday, getting off at 4:45, transported back to the times of sunshine and favor and personal uniqueness in their youth. Around the core of their stories, Theodora inserts other fables; the myth of Arachne, the woman transformed into a spider (“condemned to perfecting her stitches forever”) and Penelope, who evades her suitors by weaving by day, and unraveling at night the tapestry that, when finished, will mark her betrothal and hence, her doom. The fat and weary factory worker/vendor have trapped themselves in different punishments—perhaps willingly—but condemned in their ugliness and by the ugliness of their lives to hide the beauty and artistry that once was theirs. A contemporary fable.

Skipitares is woven in and out of their slides and audiotapes decked in a skirt of wooden treadles and a headdress of wooden spoons, ritually chopping off her hair in a final fairy tale gesture of self-mutilation and annihilation. A third story intrudes, a tale of a mysterious village where the young women spend their early years embroidering the aprons they will wear for the rest of their adult lives. Aprons marking every occasion are stockpiled to signify love, marriage, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, separation, grief. As Skipitares tells the tale, she dons a metal apron decked with rows of candles she lights ritually, one by one. She is skilled at simultaneity, at once illustrating and commenting on the stories she narrates.

The stories, by the way, are funny despite their pathos. One recorded narrator, the only male voice heard, speaks these exotic tales with a slovenly Brooklyn drawl. (Skipitares is as aware of paradox as she is of parody.) He tells the tale of the apron-obsessed village with a no-nonsense interpretation: the aprons are yet another means of repressing sexuality, subverting these women’s true identities. Lucky Arachne, who gets to live with her stitches forever. These women (“My needle was my first love,” says the embroiderer) will never know that satisfaction again.

As Skipitares introduces the pieces she enacts a conversation between her mother and herself. “Are you going to be naked again?” her mother asks, ignoring the success or esteem Skipitares earns by her performances. Equating nakedness with shame, the artist’s mother unwittingly places her daughter in the same brave tradition as Arachne—embracing her craft over public disapproval. Complex stuff for a relatively short piece, but Mother and the Maid combines all those elements precisely, at a fast-clipped, entertaining pace. Maybe that’s why the Amsterdam audience loved it so. But why not The Venus Cafe?

The structure is a little more sporadic. It opens with a narrative about a shoulder pain, which is described as if it’s a lover—embracing it, stroking it, making the pain a friend. Proceeding to the meat of the story, she describes her father’s diner, the Venus Cafe, another Greek restaurant camouflaging and compressing a noble heritage into endless streams of moussakas, spinach pies, and avgolemono soups. Inscribing a menu on the wall, she conveys the pitifulness of a heritage memorialized in a greasy spoon. Skipitares’ strong point is her props, however, and when she drapes a mobile of china plates around her shoulders and begins clacking the dishes together, she suddenly evokes the whole atmosphere of the diner within the clamor. She becomes a part of the props, superimposing her image on a slide as she talks of Byzantine princesses, reflecting images off her naked back. She assumes a mask at each new passage in the story, standing behind a shelf full of objects, emitting muffled cries and melodies as if each character could communicate without common language.

The turning point in the narration comes as Theodora puts on layer after layer of white men’s clothing, bundling her body into obscurity.

The story goes that the young American woman, walking in her usual colorful clothes and jewelry, is mistaken for a prostitute, an “Egyptian whore,” and what’s worse, is offered an insultingly low sum for her favors. Running tearfully to the home of her aunt, she’s submerged into a costume suitable for a young widow, and presented in this reputable condition to a prospective suitor who promptly proposes marriage. Another transformation successfully completed, another female carefully and safely rescued from her own sexuality, another soul saved.

Perhaps the Venus Cafe, the earlier of the pieces, reads more clearly as the second of the two stories, once certain themes have been recognized. Nevertheless, Mother and the Maid is more of a drama complete in itself. Themes are similar, methods of execution are related between the two pieces, but the Mother and the Maid neatly wraps up its lives with threads of continuity—the weaver/embroiderers of ancient Greece, modern Greece and present day New York; their working implements used as props; their occupations and preoccupations reflected in their societies. It’s such a wonderfully structured piece that Venus suffers by comparison. But it’s only by comparison. Both pieces are wonderfully personal and unflinchingly honest.

Deborah Perlberg