New York

Juan Darién, A Carnival Mass

St. Clements Church

Adapted from the story by the Uruguayan Horacio Quiroga, Julie Taymor’s and Elliot Goldenthal’s Juan Darién, A Carnival Mass, presented by the Music-Theater Group, demonstrates that theater provides an ideal means of expressing that duplicity between reality and magic that has come to seem characteristic of the literary production of Latin America.

As the action begins, we are in a fabulous jungle. Darkness envelops the stage at the center of which lie a jaguar and her cub in a tangle of liana. A hunter enters, disrupting the charged atmosphere of the scene, and slays the jaguar. The little one remains alone. As in fables or origin myths, the cub is saved by a woman who, with her milk and compassion, transforms the animal into a baby. So begins Juan Darién’s human apprenticeship. When his adopted mother eventually dies, Juan winds up in the hands of a brutal and blustering jaguar trainer. Instinctively, Darién is drawn to the jaguar cage where the trainer discovers him asleep among the wild animals. Suspecting his unusual origin the frightened villagers burn Darièn alive. It is the jaguars of the forest who reclaim his body, heal it, and welcome him (retransformed into a jaguar) back into the fold. With the jaguars, Darién takes revenge and kills the evil trainer. After scrawling his name in blood upon his mother’s grave marker, Juan returns triumphantly to the jungle.

Juan Darién is a history of formation, but at its conclusion one witnesses not the conquest of adult maturity, but rather a return to origins. Nature, instinct, and the maternal body represent positive values, opposed to the perverse values of power, codified knowledge, and civilization. Juan Darién is an allegorical tale; and the decision to stage the work without the encumbrance of dialogue and words serves it well. With brash originality, Taymor and Goldenthal have plundered disparate theatrical traditions, and the result is a splendid, pyrotechnical carnival, both sad and visionary.

Playing off contrasts in music and song (a text from a requiem mass in Latin, a lullaby by Goldenthal, and a piece by Quiroga are all scored by Goldenthal) the performance employs disparate techniques and layers various recitative planes. Expressionistic wooden masks and costumes that totally hide the body contribute to the surreal morphologies, that fall somewhere between the papier-mâché puppets of the Bread and Puppet theater and the polymorphic creatures of Mummenschanz. Manipulated by actors in black costumes whose faces and hands are hidden, the puppets postulate, as in the best Bunraku tradition, the absence of the body, despite its presence on stage.

In a media culture such as our own, a performance like Juan Darién has the extraordinary merit of reminding us that theater is both liturgy and the product of human craft, and that amazement, enchantment, and emotion are active functions for the spectator, and not a passive effect of high-tech manipulations.

Maria Nadotti

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.