Behind the masks

Theater artist Julie Taymor creates art by peeling away and interpreting layers of reality.

Cover Story

February 06, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

NEW YORK -- The large room is surprisingly empty. There's not a disembodied head in sight. And yet this pristine space, with its generous skylights, gleaming hardwood floors and bright white walls, is Julie Taymor's studio. This is the place where her imagination runs wild, where she concocts the kind of chilling imagery seen in, "Titus," her new film adaptation of the play often described as Shakespeare's bloodiest.

"Maybe that's what draws me to Shakespeare -- that full range of imagery," Taymor says. "Because there are so many different forms of violence in `Titus,' I felt obligated and interested in exploring how violence is presented as entertainment." The impact of violence is a theme Taymor has revisited often in her 25 years in the theater. In 1982, she designed masks and puppets for Center Stage's production of "Savages," a play by Christopher Hampton that concerns the extermination of Brazilian Indians. Two years later she directed "The Transposed Heads," using both face and body masks for an adaptation of a Thomas Mann novella about two men whose decapitated heads are restored to each other's bodies. She made her Broadway directorial debut in 1996 with "Juan Darien," in which everything from Diego Rivera-inspired banners to shadow puppets helped tell an Uruguayan short story about a jaguar transformed by love into a boy, then by hatred back into a beast.

And now, there's "Titus," Taymor's first full-length feature film, which includes such brutal acts as rape and mutilation, murder and cannibalism. ("Titus" is playing in a dozen cities nationwide; its Baltimore opening isn't yet scheduled.)

With this list of credits, you might expect her studio to be overflowing with strange and striking artifacts. But a few months ago, Ohio State University virtually stripped bare her studio and apartment to furnish a Taymor retrospective.

There are some tell-tale signs of Taymor's work in the studio, but they're pretty tame. A couple of framed "Titus" posters are suspended from the ceiling. Two prototype masks from her 1998 Broadway production of "The Lion King" stare benignly from one corner. And stacked neatly at one end of a long table is a small pile of resumes and head shots from actors she is considering for her forthcoming Broadway revival of the 18th century commedia dell'arte play, "The Green Bird."

Taymor is talking animatedly on the phone. When she hangs up, she strides across the room with a smile and ready handshake. In publicity photos, the 47-year-old director strikes dramatic poses, surrounded by anguished masks from "Juan Darien," or perched, elegantly coiffed, beneath the metallic tiger's head that tops the emperor's throne in "Titus." In her studio, however, Taymor dresses simply, in jeans and a long-sleeved white T-shirt, her dark hair loose and uncombed.

On this rainy January afternoon, she discusses subjects ranging from her international theater background to her approach to Shakespeare to what projects attract her.

"I'm interested in the multi-layers of reality," Taymor says. "That's what art is all about. It's not there to be a direct reflection. It's there to give the audience a new perspective on the old thing, on something that might be very familiar."

Consider her two most recent adaptations: She turned Disney's wildly popular animated film, "The Lion King," into a totally reconceived stage play, then adapted Shakespeare's earliest and least-known tragedy, "Titus Andronicus," into a film.

At first glance, "The Lion King" and "Titus" might not appear to have much in common, but Taymor says, "I think there's mythic storytelling in both of them, the sort of thing that goes back to archetypal coming-of-age stories."

That mythic level, she explains, "is why people cry at `The Lion King' in the first five minutes and they don't understand it, but it has a lot to do with archetypal imagery, with the concept of animation. I don't mean animation as in movies, I mean that we, as human beings, create art out of animating the inanimate and giving it soul, the anima. ... You see the artifice and the artifice gives life, and that's the origin of theater."

Welcome to her nightmares

Taymor first directed "Titus Andronicus" off-Broadway in 1994. The movie retains one of her most notable innovations. She punctuates the action with dream or fantasy sequences she calls "Penny Arcade Nightmares." In one nightmare, for example, two of the Queen's sons turn into tigers; in another, the head of Titus' son Mutius, whom he murdered, is grafted onto the body of a sacrificial lamb.

Quintessential Taymor.

"The idea of the Penny Arcades," she explains, "is to visualize the unspeakable, the unfathomable. It's not to show the violence. ... I only showed it when [Shakespeare] showed it. But the fact is that it's still living in the brain and the memory of the characters."

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