by Isaac Rathbone · May 26, 2014
Playwrights on New Plays #79 Isaac Rathbone shares his thoughts on The Chairs at La MaMa
The Chairs at La MaMa has many important messages for mankind
The creator of Skysaver Productions’ The Chairs, Theodora Skipitares, writes in her program note that she read Ionesco’s classic play in high school and found the outcome “cruel” and “simply out of date.” Her artistic response, currently running at LaMaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater, is inspirational both in its creative endeavors and its own very important message.
Conceived, designed and directed by Ms. Skipitares, The Chairs is a re-imagining of Ionesco’s standard of Absurdist Theater. The piece is not an adaptation, interpretation, nor retelling, but is an artistic reaction to a literary work. The strength of the piece is its ability to use this source material as an inspirational vehicle, rather than a blueprint. Juxtaposing the original work, this production allows the chairs themselves to have the opportunity to “say something important.” Using puppetry, live narration, music and video, each of the chairs takes on the persona of someone with a very strong voice about the world in which we live. Though varied, each of their messages is not absurd in the least.
What is taken from the text is basic. The two old characters are morphed into one Old Woman, played by a giant puppet of a head and voiced by a woman who knows a thing or two about communicating strong messages herself: Judith Malina. Some of the dialogue from the original text is streamlined and condensed and used as an entry point into the play. As each chair enters the space, they speak and are played by an expert team of puppeteers. Included are incarnations of a wide variety of people throughout history such as Nelson Mandela, Yoko Ono, Gertrude Stein, Stephen Hawking, even Ionesco himself. Some are not so famous, like an auto mechanic from Willets Point, but each of these characters is an activist in some form. They are people striving for positive change, whether it’s how we think about our role in the vastness of the universe or how we see gender and sexual identity equality.
The marriage of puppetry to each character and their individual message is outstanding. Everything from the symbolism to the subtle movements reinforces the passion that is clearly behind this project. The puppetry, conceived and designed by Theodora Skipitares and led in performance by co-director Jane Catherine Shaw, ranges from playful and clever to un-unnerving and bone chilling. A particular jarring moment of the show is when a chair is used to incarcerate a puppet, as the narration tells of the horrors suffered within the human mind during solitary confinement. There are plenty of light hearted moments as well, including a wonderful moment of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan's take down of Lawyer Charles Cooper regarding same sex marriage. The materials used, as well as the puppet design and construction, have almost tactile qualities that emotionally resonate. It is hard not to get excited by seeing who and what will come next on the stage and how their message will be conveyed using chairs brought to life.
The live narrators are also spot on as they literally breathe life into the puppets. Along with Ms. Malina, Jan Leslie Harding and Eugene Nesmith provide voices for the puppets. Their inflections and cadences match up with the audio samples of the subjects seamlessly. The video design by Kay Hines is primarily used as an introduction to each character, and supports the production rather than being a distraction. Donald Eastman’s set is an excellent use of the theater, creating a wide open area for the puppets to travel around while artistically utilizing the high ceilings of the space.
Skysaver Productions’ The Chairs, running until June 8th at LaMaMa, is a complete and motivating piece of theater. As each chair’s individual message propels the listener to change, the scope and energy of this piece creates a strong desire to use art as a positive force.