Julie Taymor: giving theater a touch of cross-cultural whimsy

Within the American theatrical vernacular, which these days is often said to be characterized by ``a two-person, kitchen-sink aesthetic,'' Julie Taymor is creating a new stylistic vocabulary. A New York-based designer and director who cut her cultural teeth from Paris to the Pacific, Ms. Taymor is injecting American drama with a touch of cross-cultural whimsy though her mythic, puppet-filled plays. Using everything from Indonesian shadow puppets to commedia dell'arte masks, from dime-store kites to projected illuminations, jazz, and Eastern music, Taymor is stretching traditional bounds.

With a reputation for design excellence and artistic unconventionality established by a handful of critically acclaimed theater pieces, Taymor today is virtually in a design class by herself.

Her innovative costumes, masks, and puppets used in Andrei Serban's version of Carlo Gozzi's folktale ``The King Stag'' were acclaimed coast to coast. Her recent adaptation of Shakespeare's ``The Tempest,'' which employs a Japanese bunraku puppet as Ariel, earned the designer critical kudos here in New York. Last year, Taymor received a special Obie citation for her work. This season, her most recent work -- an adaptation of Thomas Mann's ``The Transposed Heads'' -- opens tonight at Lincoln Center.

``The whole point of theater is to abstract the essence,'' says Taymor. ``Designers do this all the time -- they just get one brush stroke to say it.''

With a disinclination toward artistic naturalism, fostered by her early work at Paris's Ecole du Mime and New York's experimental Open Theatre, Taymor learned early on to cross cultural, as well as stylistic, boundaries. But it was the four years she spent in Bali, where with the help of the Ford Foundation she founded a company named Teatr Loh (``Loh'' means ``the source'' in Javanese Sanskrit), that cemented Taymor's interest in that particular confluence of puppetry, dance, and theater.

``Theater functions on different levels,'' says Taymor. ``In Indonesia there is no television, so theater is the chief means of communication and entertainment.''

Working within that definition of the art form disabused Taymor of the traditional American notion that puppets are the province of children. ``I used to hate Punch and Judy,'' she says. ``But what I really disliked was [their incorrect] association with children's theater. In Indonesia there is no such distinction. Puppets represent the ancestor spirits and are the highest form of theater.''

It was during this Far East stint that Taymor created her first interdisciplinary stage work -- a puppet/mask trilogy entitled ``Way of Snow,'' which explored Eskimo, Indonesian, and Manhattan cultures. Using shadow puppets and dancing figures combined with ice floes and escalators, Taymor abandoned naturalistic theater.

``I don't find naturalism, by itself, challenging,'' she says. ``Besides, TV and film can do it better. But when you juxtapose naturalism with an exagerated reality [on stage], the naturalism becomes magnified and, in its own way, larger than life.''

This interdisciplinary approach springs from a conceptual process Taymor describes as ``going from the inner reality to the outer. You are exposing, in an almost Cubist way, the inner emotion in an external form. And that is made much more theatrical with the use of masks and puppets.''

In nearly all her work, Taymor combines live actors -- some wearing full masks, others in half-masks and elaborate makeup -- with full-size and miniature puppets. Each character's depiction, she says, requires a separate artistic decision: ``Why resort to a mask instead of the human form? Why use a shadow puppet instead of a three-dimensional one?'' she explains. ``There should always be meaning in the technique. If you want to call it a gimmick, then I've failed.''

Although she eventually dyes fabrics, constructs elaborately-rigged puppets, and makes life-size castings from the actors' faces, Taymor starts her design process by drawing on paper, ``going after the chief trait of each character.'' For instance, in ``The King Stag,'' Taymor evoked the mythic 18th-century court through colors and animal shapes. The Prime Minister's fur-ruffed visage was suggested by a lion's mane. The longsuffering heroine wore an Oriental half-mask, suggesting purity. The evil usurper was dressed in black, batlike wings. ``The costumes are really sculpture and not just clothes,'' she explains. ``They become like whole puppets.''

Conversely, the inspiration for Taymor's ``Liberties Taken,'' an adaptation of an American revolutionary war story, came from native folk art, toys, and paintings by Hogarth and Hieronymus Bosch paintings. ``When [the images] stop being cute they become like a full-size Punch and Judy stage.''

Although Taymor casts a half-longing eye towards film and establishing her own theater company, mostly she wants to continue to avoid ``one-room sets'' and explore that puppet-augumented ``power of gesture.'' [The effect] still boggles my mind,'' she says.

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