BWW Interview: Theodora Skipitares' Strings-Attached Version of THE CHAIRS
Eugene Ionesco's dark comedy THE CHAIRS is getting a new spin at La MaMa, thanks to puppeteer Theodora Skipitares' expansive vision. Instead of the usual Old Man and Old Woman populating the stage among empty chairs, Skipitares takes the absurdist classic a step further, using visually arresting puppets.
"I think it was about two years ago when I took another look at the work thinking it would be a good starting point for me," Skipitares said of Ionesco's iconic play. "For the past 10 years I've worked with Greek mythology and Greek plays, and that period ended two years ago," a time during which she was looking for a fresh challenge.
"I remember being very fond of this work in college and even in high school and it interested me," she said. "It was disappointing because I couldn't find meaning for a contemporary world. I thought maybe it wasn't resonant for a contemporary world." Which led to her own imaginative take on Ionesco's classic.
In Skipitares' version of a post-apocalyptic world, the Old Woman is portrayed by a 10-foot puppet who invites guests to hear an important message about life's meaning. The play unfolds as an assortment of 25 chairs appears, each one representative of a unique object with something of importance to relay to the world. In her production, the guests include contemporary pop culture figures as well as literary and scientific figures. Among those represented are Gertrude Stein, Nelson Mandela, Stephen Hawking, Yoko Ono and the Russian punk rock protest group Pussy Riot.
"In the traditional play, the Old Man and Old Woman invited everyone to hear the message of mankind," Skipitares said. "The invisible guests arrive but the audience only sees the chairs. The orator is a deaf mute and the Old Man and Old Woman commit suicide at the end. I thought it was cruel. What if the guests had something to say and were puppets? I pulled together fragments of famous speeches and stories about people I met or knew about or were famous," she said.
Skipitares' play is a long departure from Ionesco's she said. "It's totally different. I did away with the whole story and play, the introduction is modified and the woman's voice I wanted to be Judith Malina, the founder of The Living Theatre."
"I'm trying to present a snapshot of the world with a variety of famous and unknown people who want to say something about their life or life in general," she said. "Another thing that happens is once a speaker speaks, two ropes clip on and they go up into the air."
Skipitares has always worked with animated figures. "It's a signature of my work, so this isn't a leap of any kind," she said. "I think it's humorous and dark, with urgent messages. Gertrude Stein said that everything she ever learned she learned from Cézanne."
Her creations started with old chairs from thrift stores, she explained. "I would chop them up and collect old auto parts that I built into them." She's not sure how her next project will unfold.
"I would love for people to come see the show and my work. I think theatergoers in general will enjoy the piece. I think it applies across the board, it has a wide spread with really great music." The show incorporates live singing with electronically produced music. "Each guest has their own signature music, and there are lots of different energies. There's even a hilarious dance sequence with three cow puppets.
"What's so interesting about this production is that I feel so good about it," Skipitares said. "I think it's one of my best projects. For some reason I couldn't get much funding for chairs that could talk, but I didn't let it get to me.
"It's not your traditional production," she said with a laugh.
The Chairs runs through June 8 at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theater, 66 East Fourth Street, East Village. 212-475-7710. La MaMa was founded by Ellen Stewart in 1961 in a small basement on the Lower East Side. It showcases work by artists of all cultures and countries. lamama.org