Theater Director Probes Humanism

Julie Taymor's bold stagings explore the struggle to overcome destiny

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

SURROUNDED by the horrific masks and skeletal sculptures that crowd her lower Manhattan loft, Julie Taymor could scarcely look more out of place. What on earth, a visitor must wonder, compels such a soft-spoken person to dwell among this beastly menagerie, and wake each morning beneath the gaze of a mammoth Moses with gnarled twigs sprouting from his brow?

While these artifacts serve as a reminder of the stage and screen productions for which she created them, the 39-year-old theater director offers a characteristically more serious answer: Their anguished expressions reflect the human condition.

For Ms. Taymor, who grew up in a wealthy suburb of Boston but has traveled widely in the developing world, being human means acknowledging fate in order to rise above it. This paradoxical struggle recurs throughout her portfolio, which she unabashedly describes as a collection of "horrendous stories with incredible violence in them...."

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She explored this struggle most recently in a production of Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" at the newly established Saito Kihen Festival in Matsumoto, Japan. The opera, conducted by Seiji Ozawa and featuring Philip Langridge and Jessye Norman as Oedipus and Jocasta, was a coup for Taymor, who won two Obie awards for her off-Broadway plays but had never before directed an opera.

Peter Gelb, who produces TV broadcasts for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, says he had no reservations about hiring Taymor. "I was excited that she had not directed one before," says Gelb. "What opera needs desperately is a fresh outlook, someone who can give it a more visual and theatrical interpretation. Julie has a vivid, painterly imagination that clearly fits the bill."

Taymor's staging presents a striking visual counterpart to Stravinsky's spirited score. Where, for example, the composer renders melodically the inevitable intersecting of genealogical lines, Taymor employs a pair of silken red ropes.

An early scene uses one of these tethers as the umbilical cord from which the infant Oedipus is lowered onto the stage. The ropes later serve as the tangled blood lines connecting Oedipus with his parents. Taymor uses these emblems to the very end, the noose by which Jocasta hangs herself and the bloody tears that stream from Oedipus's self-blinded eyes.

Her heroes seldom have it easy. But grisly as Oedipus's decisive act may be, Taymor admires him for choosing to suffer his fate, rather than flee it as Jocasta has done. Even as Oedipus blinds himself, she says, he sees for the first time who he is. The performance concludes with one of Taymor's distinctive elemental rites of purification, here a torrent of rain to cleanse the kingdom of plague.

Behind her gruesome masks and magnificent set designs, Taymor presents a much simpler face. Whether relaxing at home or editing film in the studio, she dresses comfortably in tennis shoes and jeans with a cotton shirt or sweater. She wears her straight brown hair in an easy, shoulder-length cut.

It is perhaps a testimony to her candor that a copy of "Opera Plots Made Easy" lies conspicuously on the kitchen table, while her several awards are relegated to a far and shadowy corner.

She took up acting at the age of 10, but it was after traveling to Sri Lanka five years later that Taymor began to relate theater to the human condition. She put off college for a year to study masks and mime with Jacques Le Coq in Paris and anthropology with Margaret Mead in New York. At Oberlin College, she created her own major in folklore and mythology and joined an experimental theater company led by Herbert Blau.

When she graduated from Oberlin in 1974, just 21 years old, she traveled on a fellowship to Eastern Europe, Japan, and Indonesia, where she remained for four years and founded a dance company. To this day, much of her work still hints at Bunraku shadow puppetry and Balinese masks. Taymor is quick to note her own contributions, however. "I was inspired by Asian theater forms, but I don't simply mimic them," she says. "They go through me, and something original comes out."

Soon after she moved back to the US in 1979, Taymor caught the eye of opera director Liz Swados, who hired her to design sets, costumes, and masks for a production of "The Haggadah" at New York's Public Theater. By the mid-1980s, she had outgrown the apprentice role and was directing her own plays. Her first major success came in 1986, when she won an Obie Award for a stage version of Thomas Mann's "The Transposed Heads."

Two years later she won a second Obie - this one for writing, designing, and directing "Juan Darien" - and in 1991 she won a "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation. She is currently working on film adaptations of "The Transposed Heads " and "Juan Darien." Next June she will direct a production of "The Magic Flute" in Florence, with Zubin Mehta conducting.

Much to her displeasure, Taymor's reputation has been slow to keep up with her advancing career. She is still most widely known as a puppeteer, a profession whose connotations, she says, detract from the seriousness of her work. "Sounds like mouseketeer....It's an easy peg, but I've never been a puppeteer," she says. "I conceive and I write and I design and I direct. And not just puppets. I direct actors, I direct dancers, I direct singers, I direct films. I also direct puppeteers. I'm really a theater maker, but there's not a word for that."

For all her theatrical and life transformations, Taymor would appear to lead a life of remarkable constancy. She has shared the same Greenwich Village loft with composer Elliot Goldenthal since 1981.

Internally, though, she embarked long ago on a quest for self-discovery. "One of the things that attracts me to the theater is that it is about personal transformation," she says. "A play isn't a play unless it has that evolution of character. And making physical that evolution through the power of the visual image, I think, is the reason to do theater."

The most compelling tale of personal transformation that Taymor has encountered comes in "Grendel," John Gardner's retelling of the Beowolf legend from the monster's point of view. Taymor has already adapted it for an opera, but funding snags have kept Mr. Goldenthal from completing the mammoth score, which calls for 120 musicians. Although she estimates the project is three or four years from completion, Taymor's passion is not likely to wane.

"Grendel has been with me since I was 16," she says. "He is my first love." Grendel? The beast who eats people?

"Oh, he's great character," she says with an almost girlish smile. "He's up there in the league with the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Frankenstein and all of the underdog beasts of the world - the outcasts who are more human than everybody else."

* Julie Taymor and her production of `The Tempest' will be featured Sun., Nov. 15, on `Behind The Scenes,' PBS's theater series for children.

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