Views from the Miniature City. Can Puppetry Heal The Theater?

“I can laugh at my own extinction,” says the dinosaur with the face of Theodora Skipitares, in the last and most ironic of the six eerie scenes in her show at La MaMa entitled “Views from the Miniature City” which ended its short, memorable run this weekend, forty-two years after the show, originally entitled “Micropolis,”  launched her career as a puppeteer.

Below are still photographs of the other scenes in the show, with brief descriptions.

The dinosaur episode is given the subtitle “On the Road,” a saucy clue to its downtown origins. The dinosaur (a recorded voice) talks of super highways replacing prehistoric paths, but it (she?) seems to spend most of the time on the streets of  New York City, passing by the United Nations and seeing “humans being arrested, being dragged to unwashed buses.  They gave me the peace sign…”  But if Jack Keroac’s 1957 novel is invoked, seeing this show in 2023 might invest it with a new metaphor. Bohemians were like dinosaurs when Skipitares first performed this show in 1981. Is it now theater itself that’s dying, given the current talk of a crisis?

I’d say no, and one piece of evidence is this show – which is theater, yes…and sculpture, as well as performance art (it was restaged at the Performing Garage in 1982), and also an exhibition…in short, puppetry.  The form has proven itself flexible, and resilient. This early show by Skipitares was revived first in May of this year as an art exhibition, at the  15 Orient art gallery, in Bushwick.

Skipitares has kept plenty busy in the four decades between the show’s debut and its revival, with a new work of theater just about every other year, most recently The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker, a collage about space exploration that travels from an eighteenth century Black astronomer to Lieutenant Uhura of Star Trek, and Grand Panorama , about abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his fascination with photography.

The “miniature city” she re-creates is a dark one, literally and figuratively, but also secretly light, enlightening; as opaque and compelling as poetry. Each is its own world, its own interior, its own theater. Skipitares calls the scenes portraits. Others might compare them to the boxes of artist  Joseph Cornell’s, except the figures are moving, in more ways than one.

“Sylvia,” the first portrait, was inspired by Susan Sheehan’s Pulitzer-Prize winning non-fiction book “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” a portrait of a schizophrenic woman who spent seventeen years in and out of mental institutions. “For several years I taught painting to schizophrenic adults,” Skipitares says.

The book is memorable for how clueless so many of her doctors were, unaware that she was delusional because they weren’t familiar enough with the popular culture to be alerted when she said things like (as her puppet character says in this episode) that she was going to marry Pat Boone or make it with Mick Jagger.  “I made this gown with a typewriter,” she says, shortly before she quite convincingly throws up — an impressive achievement for a puppet.

In “Wild Ducks,” we see a woman in her bathroom, injured, as strangers peer in her window, while we hear a public service announcement: “Attention hunters!  Attention hunters! Health warning.  All ducks in the area are contaminated with myrex, PCB’s and DDT.  Attention hunters.”

Skipitares explains that the audio is “found text” about the toxic effects of chemicals, “juxtaposed against a “Kitty Genovese” scenario where a person is attacked and a group of bystanders is curious and riveted by the scene, but doesn’t move to help.”

In “Hotel,” with dialogue by written by Nancy Reilly, a man urges a woman to have sex with him, but his lies make his penis grow so long that it smashes through the window of the hotel where they’ve holed up.

“Urban Landscape,” picturing a woman in a glass jar, is accompanied by a translation of the poem “War” by Arthur Rimbaud

In “Dominick,” a man is on the rooftop, tending to his pigeons, while we hear a song composed by Virgil Moorefiel, its lyrics taken from an actual conversation between an astronaut and Shuttle Control. “Dominick was a real person who cared for 300 pigeons on my roof for 20 years,” Skipitares says. “A retired handyman, he spent several hours a day feeding the birds, talking to them and sendingthem out for their circular flights.”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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