New York

Theodora Skipitares


There are moments of such emotional and esthetic persuasiveness in Theodora Skipitares’ most recent performance that,even though it was presented as a work in progress, it warrants discussion. For Skipitares to work with puppets is not new; her use of motorized puppets in their own detailed environments, however, is a recent development. The puppets are suggestively lifelike but only selectively animate: in one, for example, only the arm and head have mobility; the entire body of another is immobile, but that body is programmed to perform a convulsive jerk. The former is also capable of vomiting, the latter of bleeding. Both, incidentally, are portraits of women.

That the first vignette in Three Portraits and a Landscape is the most traditional in structure and content—a straightforward, albeit harrowing, monologue—is essential to Skipitares’ performance strategy. What follows the monologue is a parade of increasingly surreal, extra-experiential scenes in which both the puppetry and the intellectual demands on the audience grow increasingly complex. The ultimate moment describes nothing less than Armageddon, with three visible puppet-handlers frantically orchestrating four puppets caught on a nightmare of an urban rooftop. It is a relentlessly confrontational program, delicately manipulating one’s expectations as to the degree of empathy the artifice warrants. We are, after all, looking at obviously manipulated puppets; yet Skipitares’ sensibility counters any hint of preciousness.

The puppets themselves are approximately one-third lifesize and are completely contained within their meticulously rendered, incidentally lit interiors. As each scene unfolds, theatrical lighting amplifies and heightens the drama. Sylvia, the first “portrait,” is poised in a ruined hallway illuminated by a fluorescent tube. Initially she appears elegantly out of place in her strapless gown and scarf; as she begins to speak (Skipitares recites the lines from above the environment) the focus of her displacement becomes clear. She is an updated Blanche DuBois, hopelessly dependent on the kindness of strangers, desperately charming, and deteriorating into a public nuisance. The slow gesticulation of her arm as it rises to meet her descending head heartbreakingly contradicts the wandering bravado of her monologue. When, hand finally to head, Sylvia vomits down the front of her gown, she has become thousands of women living in the hallways of welfare hotels and transient shelters. The compelling specificity of her situation suggests the possibility of a solution, but the bureaucratic system which would most logically present that solution is also the author of her situation. Sylvia is a perfect example of the duality of Skipitares’ art; even at its most lyrical it never relinquishes its politically informed, humanist stance.

One of the most riveting moments in Three Portraits and a Landscape takes place when Skipitares stands by an illuminated jar of formaldehyde in which floats a romantically decomposing figure of herself. The figure stirs slightly as Skipitares almost abstractedly agitates the surface of the liquid. A somnambulistic taped voice-over which accompanies this scene drifts to its conclusion with Rimbaud’s words, “I dream of a war of unthinkable logic.” But the emotional effect owes nothing to logic; its rightness is visceral. This moment acts as a preamble to the harrowing finale in which prosaic social choreography breaks down into an anarchical apache. Skipitares’ miscellaneous urban quartet is swept into a frenzy of kinetic repetitiveness which suggests a society that has lost even its ability to react, whose response to aggression is simply an acceleration of the rote.

The piece is not without its problems—a creeping sentimentality wraps its tendrils around some of the scenes, and the sequencing occasionally feels arbitrary. But its definition as “in progress” keeps me from wanting to butt in. And regardless of what it may evolve into, it is already blessed with a formidable set of components.

Richard Flood