In Ionesco’s absurdist masterpiece, “The Chairs,” an elderly couple set out chairs for an audience to listen to a world-changing pronouncement from an orator who turns out to be a deaf-mute. Puppet theater maestro Theodora Skipitares wondered what would happen if the chairs themselves were world-changers.
Her newest work, “The Chairs,” presented by La MaMa E.T.C. May 22 to June 8, is a response to Ionesco, but that’s where the similarity ends. Skipitares’ chairs are incarnations of people like Malala, Stephen Hawking and Nelson Mandela and their messages are, well, not absurd.
Ionesco is himself a chair in this play, as are Gertrude Stein, Malala, Ai Wei Wei, Stephen Hawking and 25 others. Most are well-known and some are not, like an auto mechanic from Willets Point, a woman from Estonia who witnessed the “Singing Revolution,” and a young man named Ismael Nazario who had once been in solitary confinement. What unites them is that they all have something to say. Their words are sometimes taken from public utterances and other times, from what they shared when meeting Skipitares.
The Old Couple are replaced by an Old Woman, played by Judith Malina (The Living Theater). The performers include Jan Leslie Harding, Eugene Nesmith, Jane Catherine Shaw, Alice Tolan-Mee, Marit Sirgmets and Daphne Stergides. Music and songs are composed by Sxip Shirey and Alice Tolan-Mee.
The puppets range from giant papier-mache figures to intricate mechanical contraptions that are approximately chair-sized. Some of them have lifelike sculpted faces and most of them stand on four legs. In a few instances, the chairs actually wear smaller chairs. A young man from Sudan is represented by an African chair that resembles a saddle. Stephen Hawking is represented by an abstract globe of light in a wheelchair.
A contemporary American executioner is represented by an electric chair. All of the chairs move; they are manipulated by the performers. Throughout the play, the chair puppets fly in and out of the scene on long red strings. Among the production’s musical numbers are duets for Gertrude Stein and Eugene Ionesco.
Oddly, the personalities represented in the puppet-chairs are all somehow connected. This concept came about as Skipitares was mulling over Gertrude Stein’s wish that she could make a diagram of all the people who ever lived and the connections between them. On the simplest level, then, the message is that we are all people, er, chairs.
The puppets, concept and script are by Theodora Skipitares. Set design is by Donald Eastman. Lighting design is by Jeff Nash. Video is by Kay Hines. Puppet direction is by Theodora Skipitares and Jane Catherine Shaw. Dramaturgy is by Andrea Balis.
This production marks the beginning of a new genre of work for Ms. Skipitares. She recently completed a cycle of plays from Greek classics which were a response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They included her trilogy of “Helen Queen of Sparta,” “The Odyssey” and “Iphigenia” (2004-2007), “The Traveling Players present The Women of Troy” (2009), “Lysistrata” (2011) and “Promethius Within” (2012).
Her body of work, dating back to the late 70’s, includes productions on such subjects as scientists, surgeons, miners, eugenicists, renaissance artists and women in prison, all created with documentary material and assembled texts. For the last twenty years, Ms. Skipitares has been a resident director at La MaMa. The American Place presented her breakthrough work, “The Radiant City,” a music-theater work about Robert Moses, in 1991.
Her work has been exhibited widely in the U.S., Europe and Asia, most recently at the Whitney Museum. She has worked frequently in India as a Fulbright Fellow, as well as in Vietnam, Cambodia and Korea. She is a recipient of the American Theater Wing Design Award and has received many awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, several NEA grants, a Rockefeller Foundation grant, a McKnight Fellowship and a Distinguished Playwriting Award from the Helen Merrill Fund. She is Artistic Director of Skysaver Productions, a multimedia theater company based in New York.
“The Chairs” will be presented by La MaMa E.T.C., 66 East Fourth Street, May 22 – June 8, 2014, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM, Sundays at 2:30 PM. Tickets are $25 gen. adm. and $20 for seniors and students and can be purchased at http://www.Lamama.Org or by calling 212-475-7710.