When Julie Taymor and Elliot Goldenthal's mythic musical fable Juan Darien, A Carnival Mass opened Off-B'way in 1988, it was hailed as an "eloquent expression of the power of theatrical transformation."
The play combines complex and astonishing puppetry, live actors, magical masks, breathtakingly unusual scenery and compelling modern music to tell the tale of a jaguar cub in the Uruguayan jungle who is transformed into a boy through the love of a human mother and then must confront the savagery of human civilization. It went from Lyn Austin's Music Theatre Group at St. Clement's Church to an acclaimed tour of the U.S., Europe and Israel.
Now those who have viewed it before can do so again and those who haven't can catch up with a work that composer Stephen Sondheim has called "startling." Juan Darien is back in New York in a new, enlarged version produced by Lincoln Center Theater in association with Music Theatre Group. It is Lincoln Center Theater's first presentation in the newly refurbished at a cost of almost $5 million Vivian Beaumont Theater. And to audiences unfamiliar with the play, this voyage to a primitive Uruguayan village, with what critics have described as its constantly changing images and its alternation of reality and metaphor, can truly be startling.
"I think an audience has to throw out its preconceptions of theatre," says Taymor, who directed the work, designed the puppets, designed and sculpted the masks and co-designed the scenery and costumes.
Taymor, the recipient in 1991 of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, is sitting with Goldenthal, her companion and the composer of Juan Darien, in their spacious loft overlooking Union Square.
"It's uncategorizable," she says of the work. "You can call it music theatre, but it's not really a musical. It's not a play, but there certainly is a story. It's not like anything else, so it's hard to describe."
Rather than explain Juan Darien, Goldenthal chooses to discuss what he hopes will be the audience's reaction. It was in fact he who first proposed that they make a musical passion play out of a short story called Juan Darien by the Uruguayan author Horacio Quiroga, the first of the Latin American Magic Realist writers. "I would like the audience to have the same experience I had when I read the short story," says Goldenthal, who incorporated centuries-old pre-Colombian instruments including Olmec flutes and whistles in his score. "It was an amazing visceral experience, an elusive sense of tragedy, the idea that we never recognize when the miraculous is around us, and then we destroy the miracle." The play is subtitled A Carnival Mass, and its text is in Latin and Spanish, but both Goldenthal and Taymor say it is not necessary to know either language to understand and appreciate the play.
"We purposely kept language out of it," Goldenthal says. "There's Spanish and Latin, but you don't need to understand them. The idea was to cross age and cultural boundaries with this piece so anyone can follow it. It frees you from the encumbrance of having to hang on every word."
Because it's a carnival mass, Taymor says, the work suggests "the immediate juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane, of comedy and tragedy, of the jungle and civilization that's what it's about. And it's a requiem mass, and everyone knows what a requiem mass is. It's the most popular form in world music. So there's a link to something that is throughout humanity for all time."
Taymor, 44, grew up in Newton, Mass., and became interested in theatre at an early age. "I started with the Boston Children's Theatre," she says. "I was always interested in the imagery part of theatre, and I was a natural sculptor and painter, so the mask and puppet work was something I just fell into. I was also impressed with the Bread and Puppet Theatre in the 60's."
She studied at Oberlin College, where she majored in folklore and mythology. After college, fascinated by East Asian theatre, she went on a three-month sojourn to Indonesia; she stayed four years.
Although Taymor has been highly praised for her puppets, she chafes at being too closely identified with them. "I use puppets when it's necessary, and I think I can tell the story best," she says. "But I'm equally comfortable with actors and opera and film."
Indeed she is. Taymor has directed Shakespeare, including Titus Andronicus and The Tempest for Theatre for a New Audience and she is preparing a film version of Titus. She has directed Stravinsky's opera Oedipus Rex, conducted by Seiji Ozawa and starring Jessye Norman, in a Japanese production broadcast on PBS's "Great Performances." Her "Fool's Fire," based on an Edgar Allan Poe story (and with music by Goldenthal) was seen on PBS's "American Playhouse." And she's working on a movie adaptation of Mozart's Magic Flute, conducted by Zubin Mehta.
Goldenthal, a native of the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, studied at the Manhattan School of Music and with the composers John Corigliano and Aaron Copland. His symphonic poem "Fire Paper Water," a memorial tribute to the Vietnam War, was recorded on Sony Classical records with the cellist Yo Yo Ma; his new trumpet and piano concerto will be performed by Wynton Marsalis and Yefim Bronfman in London in Dec., and he has written the music for a full-length ballet of Othello to be choreographed by Lar Lubovitch for the American Ballet Theater next May. His many movie scores include Drugstore Cowboy, Heat, Alien 3, Batman Forever, A Time to Kill, Michael Collins and Interview With the Vampire (which garnered him an Oscar nomination).
Taymor also has another connection with the world of movies and popular theatre. She has been chosen by Disney to direct the stage version of The Lion King, the all-time high-grossing animated film. The musical is scheduled to open out of town in the spring and come to New York next fall.
After all, it's a natural from jaguar cub to lion cub isn't that far a leap.