Julie Taymor

This twenty-five-year retrospective of designer-director Julie Taymor’s career begins with an installation dedicated to her theatrical reinterpretation of Disney’s 1998 film The Lion King, for which she won two Tony Awards. Behind a multiscreen video showing footage of the production phases of the musical is an array of giant masks, mannequins in full regalia, large articulated puppets of jungle animals, and working drawings, all interspersed with small wall videos of the rehearsals and the live performance. In this buoyant environment—The Lion King is by far the sunniest of Taymor’s theatrical creations— viewers are made witness to a palpable imaginary world while being introduced to her faith in the efficacy of ritual.

Taymor’s work reveals a fascination with the origins of theater in its most essential, even preverbal forms. Between high school and college the designer studied to be a mime in Paris, where she learned to seek the most defining gestures or “ideographs” for a given role. Based on her studies of cultural anthropology at Oberlin College, and the years she spent in Indonesia and other countries where she was inspired by shamanistic rituals and healing ceremonies, Taymor has incorporated masks and costumes from African, Far Eastern, Eskimo, Native American, and classical theater into her productions and designs.

The advantage of seeing a museum retrospective of a theatrical career is that the momentum of live performance is purposefully arrested. In effect, the visitor is invited to “perform” by engaging with scale models, costumes, set pieces, video clips, and surround sound. Here Taymor’s thematizations of the errant evils and blinding fears plaguing human societies are slowly revealed as one proceeds up the ramps and stairs and into the gradually fanning spaces of the Wexner Center— a sense of journey reinforced by the chronological order of the installations. The cumulative effect, despite the occasional stroke of bawdy levity, is harrowing. For a 1986 production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Taymor designed a crude rocklike mask for Caliban based on the likenesses of the Mudmen of New Guinea. In Fools’ Fire (1992), full-body costumes transform actors into grossly enlarged courtiers who are ultimately torched by the live dwarfs, or “fools,” they have misused. Taymor clearly has a moral conception of theater, and she magnifies these personifications of good and evil until they become archetypal, refusing to eviscerate their power in cheery wrap-ups.

The exhibition reaches its crescendo in a large upper gallery with the full set of Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (conducted by Seiji Ozawa in Japan in 1992), for which Taymor designed huge head-masks and sentinels inspired by Cycladic sculpture, the scarred surfaces and severely simplified shapes of which are also reminiscent of ancient Japanese Haniwa figures. With taut scarlet ribbons crisscrossing the stage, Taymor diagrams the intersection of bloodlines during the incestuous wedding of Oedipus and his mother; the ribbons reappear streaming from his gouged eyes at the story’s end.

The exhibition is titled “Playing with Fire,” and references to fire, whether as life-giving or purely destructive, run through Taymor’s productions, often contrasted with earth or water. Fire is also an apt metaphor for the brilliant conflagration in her work of numerous performance traditions—primitive and tribal, ancient and classical, commedia dell’arte and contemporary. Ancient myths expose evil as insidious, ubiquitous, and even ineradicable, but these legends also function as appeals for acknowledgment and accountability.

Joan Seeman Robinson