I've known Julie Taymor for over 20 years. She is a dear friend and on the board of directors of Theatre for a New Audience, which I founded. The media often reports that Julie was a director of experimental theatre before she staged The Lion King. But, between 1986 and 1996, years before The Lion King, I worked closely with Julie and her collaborator and partner Elliot Goldenthal on plays by Shakespeare and a 17th-century Italian fable, The Green Bird, by Carlo Gozzi, all of which were originally produced Off-Broadway. Julie loved these authors and staged their plays with boldness and a respect for their language and ideas.
When Julie recently invited me to see a preview of Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, to be honest, I was nervous. Very nervous. Arriving at the Foxwoods Theatre, I felt like a juror who had been told so much beforehand about what was wrong with the production, that it was going to be impossible to be impartial.
Once Spider-Man began, however, it was unlike anything I had ever seen or felt. That's often the case with Julie's productions. Her theatricality engages the audience's imagination. Taymor is called a visual genius, but her imagination isn't only visual. It's visceral. She makes you feel what it's like to be something or someone else.
In Spider-Man, I couldn't be judgmental about humans flying around a theatre in ways I wished I could. I was enchanted by the whimsy of theatrical sets which presented New York City from extraordinary multiple perspectives that I could only see if I were a bird or a super-hero. Two dimensional cinematic images were contrasted with three dimensional people and surreal masked characters. Images flipped like the pages of a comic book, but it wasn't a literal comic book. It was like being a kid again or being awake during a dream. And, like a dream, there were parts that I couldn't understand, but it really didn't matter. I surrendered to this strange and fabulous circus crossed with rock and roll, myth and a comic book.
Afterwards, I thought about the name: Spider-Man. Spiders can of course be male, but in this show, Peter Parker, a teenager torn between being a normal kid and a hero, becomes this amalgamation of spider and man because he has been, as it were, impregnated by a female spider, an offspring of Arachne, a character inspired by Greek mythology, who is a villain in the show. I realized that most theatre critics writing about Spider-Man have not mentioned Taymor's body of work. She has been fascinated for many years with the connections between humans and animals and birds. She designed masks and puppets for Carlo Gozzi's The King Stag, in which a man is within a stag. She directed and designed puppets and masks for Juan Darien where a boy becomes a tiger. The Lion King integrates humans and jungle animals.
The Green Bird which Taymor staged Off-Broadway for Theatre for a New Audience in 1996 and which transferred to Broadway in 2000 is about a prince trapped inside a bird. Julie — along with Elliot Goldenthal, a marvelous creative team and company of actors, on our shoestring budget — transformed this 17th-century story from a producing nightmare into hallucinatory theatre magic. Gozzi's script includes characters in masks, a marble statue of a woman who comes to life and Singing Apples. Gozzi doesn't say how any of this is to be realized. It all has to be invented, and Taymor's creativity was magnificent. The Singing Apples became sexy sirens in pistachio-green dresses. The actresses' faces popped out of bright Macintoshes as they crooned a Goldenthal blues composition while floating high above the stage, like fruit suspended from trees.
The character of the King wore a mask that resembled former President Nixon and an exquisite actress painted her naked body for each performance to look like marble which magically became animated like Hermione at the end of Shakespeare's Winter's Tale. The audience cheered.
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