PUTTING Julie Taymor in a museum seems wrong--like caging a tiger--and yet I'm not complaining.
Before I saw "Julie Taymor: Playing With Fire," a retrospective of the acclaimed theater and film director/designer's career now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, I (and I suspect many others like me) was far too unfamiliar with her earlier work. Of course, Taymor is well-known for "The Lion King" stage musical (which tons of people have flocked to) and to a lesser degree for the recent film "Titus" (which tons of people stayed away from). One of the few who actually saw--and liked--Taymor's controversial adaptation of Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, I made the conscious decision to skip "The Lion King" based on three words: "Disney" and "Elton John."
Now I wish I'd not been so snooty.
"The Lion King," which garnered Taymor a Tony, is naturally a large part of "Playing With Fire," taking up most of the exhibition's second floor with an array of costumes, masks, set designs, photographs and video from the production and the making of the production. "Titus" is there, too, with stills and an extended trailer, as are pictures from Taymor's 1994 New York stage production of the play on which the film was based. But the real delights of this show are in discovering such lesser-known works of Taymor's as "Fool's Fire," a filmed adaptation of an Edgar Allen Poe short story (first aired on PBS in 1992) and "Liberty's Taken," a 1985 stage musical inspired by American Revolutionary fact and fiction.
In "Fool's Fire," Mireille Mosse and Michael J. Anderson are the only human actors, playing against a cast of what amounts to living puppets, i.e., people in grossly caricatured foam body suits. Those puppets, designed by Taymor--a director who gives new meaning to the term "micromanager"--are among the exhibition's most delicious visual treats. Most of one stage set from "Liberty's Taken," complete with a motorized seesaw and a bobbing ship's figurehead (which, in the original play, "spoke" to a second carved wooden sculpture), fills another entire gallery.
The only (and I mean only) frustration with "Playing With Fire" is the inherently static nature of the museum, an institution that inevitably robs Taymor's work of some of its kinetic magic by taking it off the stage and out of the cinema and translating it to a place normally reserved for pictures that stand still. It's something that the museum has taken great pains to overcome--with theatrical lighting, stage mock-ups and a darkened, roped off stairwell hung with several of her puppets and stage beasties--but at best it's a compromise. The video monitors (and there are several of them) help, as do a few motorized set pieces and, believe it or not, the motion of the museumgoers themselves. As you enter the room devoted to "The King Stag," a 1984 production of Carlo Gozzi's commedia dell'arte play for which Taymor designed costumes and puppets, and as you stand beneath a large bear made of parachute fabric, your presence stirs up eddies of air that make the cloth billow and sway in a gentle semblance of what it must have been like to see it manipulated by puppeteers on stage.
Taymor's influences are myriad: Indonesian shadow puppetry, Japanese bunraku and kabuki, African masks, Mexican Day of the Dead rituals, early American folk art, the murals of painter Diego Rivera, cubism and Cycladic sculpture, the films of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. The list goes on and on. This frenzy of appropriation (a term Taymor herself rejects) is equally apparent in "Titus," which although set in ancient Rome, evokes contemporary America, Nazi Germany and the land of Oz, not to mention the time and place in which it's supposed to occur. Whatever works, Taymor uses, and not because she disrespects the source but precisely because she does respect it--its power, that is to affect the audience.
And that's exactly what "Playing With Fire" does. It turns the museumgoer into a member of the audience, albeit one who must provide some of the "life" of live theater himself, if only by walking around the exhibits in order to create a sense of artificial movement. This is particularly acute in the case of "The King Stag" room, which more than any other gallery resembles an inanimate window display.
In a talk at the National Press Club connected with the exhibition's opening, Taymor said of theater: "It's very limitations are its power." What she was talking about was how theater--which cannot replicate reality in the way that, say, film does--asks us to, in Taymor's words, "fill in the blanks." Her art is a kind of poetry of suggestion and metaphor that demands a reciprocal effort on our part. What's clear from this fabulous exhibit, which in a sense also asks us to fill in some blanks, is that in order to accept and to embrace its limitations, we must go beyond ignoring them.
That is "Playing With Fire's" triumph: that, thanks to the force of Taymor's imagination, our own minds are able to rise to her level, to fill in the blanks that this dazzling--if imperfect--show leaves us with.
JULIE TAYMOR: PLAYING WITH FIRE -- Through Feb. 4 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW (Metro: Metro Center). 202/783-5000. Web site: www.nmwa.org. Open 10 to 5 Mondays through Saturdays, Sundays noon to 5. Admission to the special exhibition is $8; $6 for students, seniors and groups of 10 or more; $5 for members; free for children under 12. This Sunday and Jan. 7 only, admission is free. Tickets are available at the museum, by calling VISTA Ticketing at 877/700-6692 or by visiting the Web site www.museumtix.com.
A variety of public programs is offered in association with the exhibition. Unless otherwise noted, all programs take place at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. For NMWA program information and registration, call 202/783-7370.
Sunday from noon to 4 -- Family Festival: Children ages 5 to 12 with adult companions participate in puppet, mask and movement workshops, tour the exhibition, watch an Indonesian gamelan performance and shadow puppet show and listen to stories. Free, but tickets required for timed admission at noon, 1:15 and 2:30.
Dec. 8 and 9 at 8 -- Two performances of the American Repertory Theatre's acclaimed production of "The King Stag," featuring costumes, masks, puppetry and choreography by Julie Taymor, at George Mason University's Center for the Arts Concert Hall. $21-$42. For tickets, call 703/218-6500.
Dec. 10 from 1 to 3 -- Character and Environment: In a workshop designed for high school and college students, costume designer Constance Hoffman and set designer Christine Jones discuss working with Julie Taymor on "The Green Bird" and lead participants in an exercise designed to capture character and environment in response to a monologue from "Antigone." Free.
Dec. 11 from 12:30 to 1:15 -- Gallery talk: "Flights of Fancy: Costume and Julie Taymor's Theatrical Vision." Admission (includes entrance to the exhibition): $8, $6 for seniors and students, $5 for members.
Dec. 11 from 7 to 8:30 -- Panel discussion: "The Creative Vision of Julie Taymor." Admission (includes entrance to the exhibition from 6 to 7): $15, $12 for members, $10 for students.
Dec. 13 at 7 -- Film: "Titus," followed by post-screening discussion with actor Harry J. Lennix, who plays Aaron the Moor. $8, $6 for members, students and seniors.
Dec. 17 at 2 -- Film: "Titus." $7, $5 for members, students and seniors.
Jan. 7 from 1 to 4 -- Musical Museum: In a program designed for children ages 9 to 12, families tour the exhibition, followed by a discussion of opera sets, costumes and musical performance presented in conjunction with the Washington Opera. Free.
Jan. 17 at 7 -- Film screening: "Oedipus Rex." $7, $5 for members, students and seniors.
Jan. 28 at 2 -- Music and dance performance by Gamelan Mitra Kusama Ensemble. $15, $12 for members and seniors, $10 for students.
Jan. 28 from 2 to 4 -- Creatures 'n' Costumes: In a program designed for children ages 6 to 9, costume designer Jane Phelan leads families in a costume-making workshop. Free.
Jan. 29 from 12:30 to 1:15 -- Gallery talk: "Shadow and Substance: The Art of Puppetry." Admission (includes entrance to the exhibition): $8, $6 for seniors and students, $5 for members.