Beauty and the Supercomputer
In surprising ways,
visionary director Julie Taymor's
big 'Spider-Man' gamble brings her full circle
to her avant-garde roots
By Roger Copeland
Left: George Tsypin's multi-level set, with lighting design by Donald Holder (photo by Jacob Cohl). Right: at reahearsal, the score's creators The Edge and Bono with Taymor and her co-writer, Glen Berger (photo by Joan Marcus).
1: Oct. 28, 2010
I'm tiptoeing my way into a late-night tech rehearsal, already in progress, of Broadway's newest musical/spectacle/extravaganza, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. "Dark" is the operative word: I'm fumbling about in it, trying not to trip as I cautiously grope my way toward what feels like a seat in the cavernous Foxwoods Theatre. Nothing noteworthy seems to be happening on stage at the moment. But I can see that the auditorium is dotted with row upon row of large computer screens, all glowing with vector graphics and pixilated grid patterns. Is this really a Broadway theatre just a block from Times Square? It feels more like Mission Control at the Space Center in Houston.
It quickly becomes apparent that all those luminous computer screens are part of a densely woven web whose designer, Julie Taymor, has just begun to speak: "Okay," Taymor whispers into a hand-held microphone. "Start the tornado of spiders."
Right on cue, digitized images of white spidery shapes begin to proliferate on an array of projection screens, gliding in various directions with the grace of an Olympic ice skater. As the airborne spiders spin ever more furiously, it's easy to see why Taymor refers to this moment as a "tornado."
But the web-designer-in-chief isn't happy. "It looks too much like a literal tornado," Taymor announces calmly but firmly. "I want something more abstract, more beautiful." Perhaps something more like Oz, and less like the Midwestern tornado that transported Dorothy there? A few delicate mouse-clicks later and voilà! We're not in Kansas anymore. The literal-looking tornado has morphed into something much less specific, much more mysterious and evocative. It's as if we've made an accelerated journey through the collection of late J.M.W. Turner canvases at the Tate: What started out as identifiable seascapes of water and rocks, clouds and sunsets have magically dematerialized into pure light and free-floating patterns.
Julie Taymor is a beauty freak. The word she'll utter most often over the course of this evening's rehearsal is "beautiful." She'll sound happy when she sees beauty and impatient when she doesn't. Even though the color palettes on those computer screens are capable of generating hybrid hues never imagined by Mother Nature, Taymor is still searching for a very particular "bluish-black." You get the impression that she can see it quite clearly in her mind's eye; but she won't be happy until she sees it on stage. "George, it looks so beautiful on your laptop...." Why doesn't it look that way on stage? After a wee bit of Tinkerbell-ish tinkering, it will.
Like a compliant corps of Ariels serving their master Prospero, Taymor's digital design team conjures up its own distinctive brand of Shakespearean "rough magic." No doubt my inclination to see Taymor as a high-tech Prospero has much to do with the fact that I've arrived at this rehearsal fresh from a screening of her latest film, an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, featuring Helen Mirren as a female Prospero. In much the same way that Taymor's cinematic Tempest takes place largely in the mind and imagination of her "Prospera," it quickly becomes evident that—despite all those computers being operated by all those designers and their assistants (and the assistants to the assistants)—the sum total of Spider-Man exists on one and only one super-computer, the very one most likely to survive a power outage or a cyber-attack: that's Julie Taymor's brain.
Not once, over the course of a long and arduous evening, will Taymor consult any sort of script, cue sheet or prompt book. But, astonishingly, the entirety of what she hopes the audience will eventually see—every rotation of the turntables, every change in the angle of the rake of the stage floor, every re-configuring of the LED panels, every musical cue, projection cue, light-level cue—has all been "pre-visualized" by Taymor and appears to be securely housed in her head.
Anyone's who's seen Taymor's best work—Juan Darién, perhaps, or the 1992 feature film of her reimagining of Stravinsky's oratorio Oedipus Rex—knows she's a visionary. But what isn't evident until you watch her at work in a rehearsal like this one is that she's also a level-headed, pragmatic, moment-by-moment problem-solver. Over the course of the evening, there will be countless technical huddles between director Taymor and some of the world's most accomplished theatrical design artists (just for starters: Spider-Man's décor is credited to George Tsypin, and its lighting is by Donald Holder). The problems they're struggling to resolve at this rehearsal are minutely, even excruciatingly, technical in nature (e.g., the first row of LEDs are too bright for the third set of projections, unless scrim #56 is raised to half the height of sliding panel #34...the sort of thing visionaries routinely ask their functionaries to "deal with"). But tonight at least, nine times out of ten it's Taymor herself who comes up with the solution and dissolves the huddle.
No doubt, Taymor's pragmatic temperament helps explain the aura of quiet, focused professionalism that pervades the rehearsal. Given the way online rumormongers have been chuckling about Spider-Man for the past few months, chronicling—with gleeful sadism—the countless delays and difficulties that have hounded this production, I arrived at the rehearsal expecting something else: the sort of neurotic, sleep-deprived, overly caffeinated mania that comes from knowing that a mere two-and-a-half weeks from tonight, the stalls of the Foxwoods Theatre will be occupied by theatregoers who've shelled out a record-setting $140 for each orchestra seat to what is already (by far) the most grotesquely expensive undertaking in the history of the commercial theatre. Spider-Man's budget has already skyrocketed to the stratospheric sum of $60 million and counting. To put that jaw-dropping figure in perspective, Taymor's Tempest film—shot almost entirely on the Hawaiian island of Lana'i and boasting a cast of big names like Mirren, Alfred Molina, Alan Cumming, Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, Russell Brand, Tom Conti and Djimon Hounsou—weighed in at a measly $20 million.
Some weird transmigration of media appears to have occurred here. To those gossip columnists who revel in advance buzz rather than confirmable fact, Taymor's Tempest is (comparatively speaking) a mere teapot, and Spider-Man is the true tempest—or at least the eye of a very big storm.
But if, in fact, dark, tempestuous clouds are gathering over the Foxwoods Theatre, it's not just because of the money, the schedule delays, the injuries to high-flying actors, the safety inspections from the New York State Department of Labor. It may well be that the very conjunction of these particular three "S's"—Spider-Man, singing and Spandex—brings out the aspiring Mel Brooks in all of us. To wit: The single funniest joke at last June's Tony Awards ceremony involved Sean Hayes, the emcee, singing a hilariously muffled rendition of a showtune while running through the aisles of the theatre dressed in a tight-fitting Spider-Man outfit. Breathing a sigh of relief after peeling the stretch mask from his face, Hayes announced, "The Spider-Man musical is coming to Broadway next season—but I don't know how the poor actor is gonna sing in this thing! But then again, I'm not the genius Julie Taymor is."
Even with someone as talented as Taymor at the helm, managing the rock-star team of U2's Bono and The Edge and sharing writing duties with tuned-in young playwright Glen Berger, Spider-Man remains a monumental crapshoot. How many years will the production have to run just to break even? It seems weirdly appropriate that the theatre Taymor choose for Spider-Man was purchased last August by the Foxwoods Casino chain. Any way you look at it, this undertaking is a gigantic gamble.
Then again, I learned many years ago never to bet against Julie Taymor.
Nov. 7, 1996—that's when the first ominous announcement appeared in the New York Times. The reason I can recall the exact date is that the news was so deeply...disturbing: Julie Taymor—one of my favorite living theatre artists, someone whose work I had followed faithfully ever since discovering her visionary cross-cultural costume-and-puppet designs for the American Repertory Theater of Boston's production of Gozzi's King Stag in 1984—had (apparently!) agreed to direct a Broadway musical based on Disney's animated cartoon The Lion King.
I'm not a religious person but, like the proverbial atheist in the foxhole, I instinctively folded my hands, bowed my head and began to pray: "Oh, please, dear God, say it ain't so—don't allow one of my cultural heroes to climb into bed with the Aesthetic Antichrist, a.k.a. the Walt Disney Company!" I saw it not so much as the Second Coming as the First Dumbing Down...down, down, down.
But a year later, when the production opened on Broadway, it quickly became evident that my fears were unfounded. With The Lion King, Taymor became the first woman ever to win a Tony for the direction of a Broadway musical; she also became the first and still only person to ever win Tonys for both directing and costume design. The Lion King has, of course, subsequently become one of the most commercially successful productions in the history of world theatre. Andrew Lloyd Webber, move over—your nine lives are up. It's a different breed of cat that's gonna rule the Great White Way—now and, just possibly, forever.
Those double Tonys reveal something essential about Taymor's talent: She's one of those rare theatrical auteurs whose personal vision pervades virtually every aspect of any production she supervises. And with The Lion King, she demonstrated that the sheer strength and distinctiveness of that vision could transform an otherwise forgettable commodity into an exalting theatrical experience.
To be sure, Taymor's Lion King was still saddled with a lot of sitcom-ish dialogue and assembly-line pop songs imported directly from the movie. But, unlike earlier Broadway adaptations of Disney cartoons—Beauty and the Beast, for example—there was nothing literal-minded about the way Taymor translated images from screen to stage. The live performers never completely disappeared into full-body costumes that announced, with mind-numbing obviousness, "I am a jaunty dancing spoon, or a tipsy, spinning teacup." Taymor's guiding principle in The Lion King was what she calls the "double event": The juxtaposition of live performer and inanimate object in a way that allows the audience to simultaneously see both the human operator and the mechanical puppet. Or, in another variation on this strategy, Lion King actors—representing a vast array of folkloric African animal characters—wear iconic masks (often gorgeous sculptural objects in their own right) not over their faces but on top of their heads.
Of course, theatre at its most elemental is always a double event of one sort or another. Whether we're speaking of Sophocles, Shakespeare, kabuki or noh, the very fact that all the women's roles therein were originally portrayed by men, in highly "conventionalized" fashion, required the spectators to make a fundamental leap of imagination. In great theatre, we allow for—even celebrate—the gap between agreed-upon conventions that represent the world and the real world represented by those conventions. In film, by contrast—at least most of the time—we want as little daylight as possible to pass between those two poles.
Taymor's dynamic balance between abstraction and empathy is especially evident in the tension between human flesh and inanimate object, an opposition that runs through much of her work. One of the advantages of relying so heavily on masks and puppets is that when human flesh is revealed, its vulnerability, its (shall we say) essential humanity, becomes extraordinarily poignant in a totally unsentimental way. This complex, symbiotic relationship between flesh, mask and puppet is nowhere more evident than in Taymor's Oedipus Rex (a wonderful film adaptation of which is readily available on DVD).
All versions of the Oedipus story invariably examine the relationship between sight and insight, but in Taymor's production, this duality is literally embodied in her conception of the title character: In addition to the "seeing" Oedipus, there is also a blind, inner Oedipus whose relationship to the outer world is essentially tactile rather than visual. Oedipus himself becomes a sort of double event. And in a brilliant casting coup, the bodily Oedipus is portrayed by the legendary Japanese butoh dancer Min Tanaka. Until the brutal climax of the opera, when the "outer" Oedipus gouges out his own eyes, Tanaka's flesh is buried beneath layers of armor. But as Oedipus discovers the terrible truth, Tanaka peels off the last protective layer of this outward shell; and his nakedness—like that of Lear on the heath—becomes movingly, excruciatingly, palpable in a fully tactile way.
Something similar occurs in Taymor's masterpiece Juan Darién: A Carnival Mass, first performed at St. Clement's Church in l988 and even more brilliantly revived by Lincoln Center Theater in 1996. Based on a short story by the Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga, with a brilliant musical score by Taymor's longtime collaborator and life partner Elliot Goldenthal, Juan Darién is the heartbreaking story of an orphaned jaguar adopted by a human mother whose own child fell victim to an outbreak of plague. Through the unconditional force of her love, the mother transforms the young jaguar, at least temporarily, into a human child. But after her death, Juan is tormented and physically tortured by the community at large, which has come to fear his "otherness," his animal origins. In magical-realist fashion, Taymor represents Juan's various metamorphoses with a wide variety of conventions: a rod-and-string puppet, a hand-manipulated doll and a nearly life-sized bunraku-style puppet. Only after the death of his human mother does Juan emerge as a full-fledged, flesh-and-blood child actor: The very moment he appears most fully human is, paradoxically, the moment he becomes a social outcast.
A variation on this idea is also central to Taymor's 1992 film for public television, Fool's Fire, based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. Here the two most sympathetic characters, the jester Hopfrog and his lady love Trippetta, are taunted and humiliated by a grotesque court of corpulent, leering aristocrats. Hopfrog and Trippetta are both played by human dwarfs. But their tormentors are portrayed by actors concealed in grotesque body masks (they look like figures out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch). The audience thereby identifies most easily and directly with the dwarfs, which serves to illustrate yet another obsession of Taymor's: her desire to "tell the tale" from the vantage point of the cultural outsider. This is, of course, also the conceit that animates her epic opera Grendel, another collaboration with Goldenthal (see AT, July/Aug. '06). Grendel, as readers of the John Gardner novel know, is the story of Beowulf as told from the perspective of the monster.
The fact that Taymor's film of The Tempest and her stage adaptation of the Spider-Man comic are opening almost simultaneously this month constitutes a double event in and of itself, one that reminds us of the extent to which film and theatre continually cross-fertilize one another in her work. While she rarely incorporates actual film projection on stage, Taymor often devises purely theatrical equivalents for such cinematic conventions as the zoom, the pan and the tracking shot. Similarly, in the manner of pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès, Taymor's movies are often unabashedly theatrical.
But, above all, Taymor's double event is a welcome antidote to the dilemma theatre faces at a time when the norms of what constitutes "acting" are increasingly defined by movies and television. The more "realistic" the theatre tries to be, the more it tends to come off as a bad imitation of film; by aspiring to realism, theatre is entering into a competition it's destined to lose. On the other hand, the more defiantly anti-realistic the theatre becomes, the more it runs the risk of feeling bloodless, rarified and disconnected from life as lived by its audience. This is a double-bind to which Taymor's double event can be viewed as an antidote—i.e., a strategy for achieving an acceptable and distinctive middle ground between "realism" on the one hand and "abstraction" on the other. Even on those occasions when Taymor's work becomes too stylized for its own good, it never becomes purely self-referential (in the manner of Robert Wilson or Richard Foreman at their most solipsistic)—you always sense that every gesture corresponds to something in the world beyond the parochial confines of the stage.
In this regard (and in others as well), Taymor remains an old-fashioned humanist, and her reputation—at least in certain academic circles—has suffered for it. Check the syllabi for upper-level courses in the theatrical avant-garde: The Wooster Group, quite deservedly, will always be represented there, but Taymor's worsk, less often. One reason is that Taymor never traffics in the outer limits of irony or cooler-than-thou detachment that is de rigueur these days in the more theoretically rarified realms of academia. Taymor's essential humanism—her determination to find whatever light there is at the end of even the darkest tunnel—to "Turn Off the Dark," in other words—is probably most evident in her film version of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, her first project following the colossal success of The Lion King.
Surely it speaks volumes about Taymor that when she could have been churning out Son of Lion King or Pokémon: The Musical, she chose to adapt for the screen her 1994 stage production of one of the grisliest plays ever written. Titus is not exactly an exercise in PG-rated fun (critic Jan Kott once quipped that if Titus had a sixth act, its murderous cast would have been forced to start hacking up members of the audience). And cynics who regard The Lion King's "circle of life" motif as mere sentimental humanism should consider what Taymor does with the symbolism of the circle in Titus: Here it becomes a circle of death, as represented by the enclosure of the Roman Colosseum. So, in one sense, Titus can be seen as Taymor's anti–Lion King, proof positive that she hadn't sold her soul to Disney.
It's notable in this regard that one of Taymor's central conceits, in both her stage and film versions of the play, was to frame its story as if seen through the eyes of an innocent child, Titus's grandson Lucius. Most children, if subjected to the unspeakable atrocities routinely witnessed by this character, would eventually find themselves in one of two places: a psychoanalyst's couch or a maximum-security prison (maybe serving out a life sentence as a sociopathic serial killer). But—and here comes Taymor's inescapable humanism—she concludes the film on a note of unearned optimism. Young Lucius not only escapes the circle of death (by walking out of the Colosseum and into the light of the rising sun), he does so while cradling in his arms (and thus rescuing) the young son of Titus's sworn enemy Aaron.
This optimism of Taymor's isn't the aspect of her humanism that the academic "thought police" object to most strenuously. Ironically, what many academics today regard as anthropologically (and thus politically) incorrect in Taymor's work is her belief that a white, First-World artist should be perfectly free to borrow (the academics would say "appropriate") conventions from Third-World peoples. But Taymor has never been the sort of designer who leafs through the latest National Geographic and declares, "Wow, that exotic headdress is cool—I think I'll use that look in my next piece." No, in marked contrast to contemporary artists who mindlessly mix "multicultural" influences into a fashionable but undifferentiated stew—a sort of art by Cuisinart—Taymor always explores the deep cultural context of her sources before synthesizing them into something uniquely her own.
3. Then and Now
As Taymor herself would be quick to acknowledge, she is both inheritor and synthesizer of many traditions, some of them contemporary and Western (Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet Theater, Joseph Chaikin and the Open Theatre, the Lecoq school in Paris). But Taymor also affirms that one experience was more formative for her than all the others: her Indonesian apprenticeship of the late 1970s, when, right out of college, she spent the better part of four years studying Balinese and Javanese forms of puppetry, temple clowning and masked drama.
We often think of Indonesian art as the ne plus ultra of exquisite refinement, and there are of course many examples of extreme delicacy in the music, dance and puppetry of Bali and Java. But the Indonesians are also acutely aware of the need to achieve a balance—a dynamic equilibrium, if you will—between two complementary concepts: halus (the refined) and kasar (the coarse and/or crude). Anyone who's ever attended an all-night shadow puppet (wayang kulit) performance in Bali or Java—usually a dramatization of either the Mahabharata or the Ramayana—knows that the refined characters are only half the story. In fact, the real crowd-pleasing characters are the far more grotesque clown/servants whose behavior is uninhibitedly kasar—as bawdy as anything to be found in the plays of Aristophanes or the tales of Rabelais. When it comes to onstage behavior that's eye-poppingly lewd, puppets will uncomplainingly execute sexual and scatological feats that most human performers this side of the porn industry would be reluctant to even contemplate.
There is no other art form, classical or contemporary, Eastern or Western, that has influenced Taymor more profoundly than wayang kulit. It informs her work in countless ways, sometimes quite literally, as in Juan Darién, where leather shadow puppets create images of animals and human beings doing some very nasty-looking things to one another. In other works, the influence is more allusive and indirect: the gargantuan puppet that represents the Sphinx in Oedipus, for example, is a three-dimensionalized version of the otherwise flat wayang kulit figure, here held aloft bunraku-style by three human operators.
But the significance of wayang kulit for Taymor is even more fundamental: It represents a sort of origin story for the arts themselves, as elemental as the flickering flames that cast shadows on the walls of ancient caves. The ghostly nature of the shadows reminds us that the earliest function of wayang kulit was probably to call up the spirits of dead ancestors. And if the dancing shadows generated by these puppets occasionally suggest animated versions of the oldest known man-made images, the Paleolithic cave paintings to be found in Lascaux or Altamira, so much the better—if only because this most ancient of art forms (with its moving images projected on a screen!) is also an early premonition of the cinema.
So it's easy to see why wayang kulit is for Taymor the original double event, the source of all those polarities that will subsequently resonate throughout her work—sacred/secular, mythos/logos, puppets/people, theatre/cinema. Taymor might even be tempted to argue, I believe, that the tensions she's trying hardest to reconcile at this very moment—the struggle between art and commerce—can also be traced back to Indonesia.
Taymor has always maintained that big Broadway spectacles like The Lion King and Spider-Man have actually brought her work full circle, back to its origins in Indonesia. But how can this be? Bali and Java are societies where performance is guided by deeply sacred rather than commercial motivations. The classical Indonesian arts are ritual embodiments of fundamental belief systems that sustain Balinese and Javanese life. This is another way of saying that the modes of traditional performance Taymor explored on Bali and Java aren't "avant-garde" in the context of their own culture: They're utterly mainstream. But prior to her association with Disney, Taymor worked primarily in rarified avant-garde venues far removed from the centers of American culture and commerce.
The Lion King, by contrast, in its unabashedly commercial productions on Broadway (as well as London, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Toronto and other cities worldwide) has allowed Taymor to reach a far more mainstream audience. Of course, unlike a sacred Indonesian ritual, Taymor's Lion King isn't intended to heal the sick or improve the rice harvest. But that doesn't mean that it hasn't exerted a significant influence on mainstream culture. Anyone who's ever accompanied a group of children to a matinee performance of Lion King can attest to the profound effect the production invariably has on them—jaws drop and eyes open wide in wonder when those gorgeously stylized giraffes and gazelles begin to prance and stampede their way through the aisles of the theatre. And who knows? Perhaps a few of the tens of thousands of children who will eventually see Lion King will leave the production convinced (probably for the first time in their lives) that live theatre can still give 3-D films like Avatar a run for their money.
This is not to say, of course, that Lion King is by any measure the artistic culmination of Taymor's career—but it's less of a deviation than many Disney-phobes would have us believe. And while I count myself among those Disney-skeptics, right at this moment—watching the stop-and-start progress of rehearsals from my seat in the mostly empty Foxwoods Theatre, a scant two weeks before audiences are scheduled to arrive for the first preview—I'm actually more optimistic than I am dubious about the prospects for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
Having just listened to Reeve Carney (Taymor's Peter Parker as well as her Ferdinand in the Tempest film) sing a rousing song from the show called "Boy Falls from the Sky," I have reason to believe that The Edge and Bono's Spider-Man score will throb with the sort of haunting, plangent wail we associate with U2's best music. Carney also strikes me as a potential teen-heartthrob-in-waiting, a sort of cross between Robert Pattinson of the Twilight films and one of the Jonas Brothers (but with a much better voice).
And watching this spectacularly talented singer do his number on a moving treadmill reminds me that there's a sense in which Spider-Man, perhaps even more than The Lion King, will bring Taymor full circle, back to her Indonesian apprenticeship. Here's what I mean: In Balinese and Javanese ritual, a human being can become possessed not just by the spirit of an animal, but also by the spirit of a clay pot. In other words, the very boundary between the animate and the inanimate—so sharply enforced in the West—is much more porous and permeable in Indonesia. Based on what I've seen at rehearsal this evening, it looks as if Taymor and her Spider-Man design team are trying to conjure up that sort of worldview right here on the Foxwoods stage: not only a world in which everything seems to be in motion, but one in which the distinction between solid, three-dimensional objects and holographic projections of light seems to have completely dissolved.
Yet another double event. Or, as 2001 author Arthur C. Clarke once put it, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Roger Copeland is a professor of theatre and dance at Oberlin College whose books include the widely used anthology What Is Dance? and Merce Cunningham: The Modernizing of Modern Dance. He has lectured about Julie Taymor's work in the U.S. and abroad, and is a frequent contributor to this magazine.blog comments powered by Disqus
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