Police Killings Portrayed with Puppets, Lifesize Books & a Lick of Lorca STAGE REVIEW: “There’s Blood at the Wedding” by Theodora Skipitares
Reviewed by LindaAnn LoSchiavo for L’Idea
Federico García Lorca’s 1934 devastating drama “Yerma” just ended its run at the Park Avenue Armory and now “Blood Wedding,” another part of this trilogy, has been the inspiration for a radically reimagined docu-drama about police killings by director—designer Theodora Skipitares onstage until June 3, 2018 in the East Village.
An interdisciplinary artist who was trained as a sculptor and theatre designer, Skipitares took a bookmaking class at Pratt Institute, where she teaches, and writes that she “started making what I call ‘performing books,’ objects (often of non-traditional materials) that unfold in time.”
Her intriguing paper structures were created to bring to life six disturbing police encounters from 1999 — 2017 that would cut short the life of these adults: 32-year-old Philando Castile (July 16, 1983 —July 6, 2016), 23-year-old Amadou Diallo (September 2, 1975 — February 4, 1999), 28-year-old Sandra Bland (February 7, 1987 – July 13, 2015), 23-year-old Sean Bell (May 23, 1983 — November 25, 2006), 40-year-old Justine Damond (April 4, 1977 – July 15, 2017), and 43-year-old Eric Garner (September 15, 1970 – July 17, 2014). Mysteriously, Sandra Bland was found hanged in a Texas jail cell, three days after being arrested during a traffic stop when she failed to signal a lane change. The other five were unarmed citizens who were fatally shot by law enforcement, uniformed personnel whose duty it is to keep order and protect us.
Some of visuals work much better than others. For example, the diorama that represents the inside of Philando Castile’s 1997 white Oldsmobile, where his girlfriend filmed the slaying, is pure genius, effective, memorable, moving. Unfortunately, this exceptional “performing book” is followed by a dud: two actors hang paper replicas of numerous mundane objects in his car — — Mr. Castile’s cellphone, groceries, sneakers, a child’s blue raincoat, etc. — — on a red contraption, slowly, one after the other. This display comes across as self-indulgent, neither sufficiently engaging to justify the stage time it occupies nor illuminating.
During any experimental multi-media production that lasts an hour, the audience is always hoping there will be more elements that sizzle instead of fizzle. And, yes, certain effects here are arresting, well-conceived, and heart-breaking. These include the cardboard jail cell that traps Sandra Bland; silhouettes that mimic a Justine Damond figure trying on a wedding veil as well as two shadows in a Minneapolis alley that made the Australian life coach dial 911 to report a suspected assault; and the light-show that recreates the Bronx hallway where Amadou Diallo encountered the four officers who fired a combined total of 41 shots. Equally poignant is the riveting repeated refrain: “Amadou, 22 — — 41 shots fired at you.”
But what does “There’s Blood at the Wedding” have in common with Lorca’s 1932 tragedy “Bodas de Sangre” [“Blood Wedding”]? Not much. Exploring the themes of choice, deception, and fate, his play was focused on a fatal love triangle; a Bride-to-be is enamoured with Leonardo Felix, a flirtatious former beau (now married with children) who attends her wedding and absconds with her, a betrayal the Groom must avenge — — and then both men die.
Since Garcia Lorca’s romantic revenge theme has to do with death but not guns and certainly not any police killings, Skipitares is out on a limb when she depicts a few moments from “Blood Wedding” with life-size puppets, straining for a faint frisson here or there. The only place this sort of works is Scene 3’s lullaby (“All Babies Must Cry”), which Lorca fans will recognize from his Act I when Leonardo Felix’s wife and mother-in-law sing to his son, foreshadowing the deaths that will occur when two jealous males fight over the Bride.
Excited by display, Skipitares has eight table-top marionettes do a frenzied wedding dance in Scene 8, which is meant to comment on Scene 7 and groom-to-be Sean Bell, shot by police while leaving his bachelor party at Club Kalua, a strip joint in Jamaica, Queens, NY. No, it is not as en pointe as the lullaby interlude, though far more engaging than a yawn-inducing, pointless piece such as “Wool, red wool” in Scene 11.
Taken all together, these near-misses illustrate the hazards of justifying what might sound amazing on a grant application versus the challenge of presenting it successfully to a live audience.
Skipitares must have felt she needed a framework to express her genius. But if she shrugs off Lorca when revising “There’s Blood at the Wedding,” I think she’ll find there is enough raw material to stretch over her canvas.
Note: At the performance I attended, the audio-visuals were not working and creative substitutions were made.
Performances are May 18 to June 3, 2018 in La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater, 66 East Fourth Street, New York, NY. Show times are Thursday to Saturday at 8:00 PM; Sunday matinees May 20 at 5:00 PM; May 28 & June 3 at 4:00 PM.