- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 25, 2000

Hop-Frog, a medieval court jester just 3 feet tall, cowers under the banquet table of a repulsive, gluttonous king and his sadistic courtiers.

The captive dwarf is tortured by the inglorious company he is forced to entertain before his revenge in "Fool's Fire," a film shown as part of the exhibit "Julie Taymor: Playing with Fire" at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

The New York-based Miss Taymor does it all, as her first major museum retrospective shows. She designs puppets, costumes, masks and sets and directs theater, film and opera.

Miss Taymor, 48, sculpted the repulsive king and nobles of "Fool's Fire" with clay built into soft foam latex and also directed actor Anthony Hopkins from a high crane in the shooting of "Titus." You might remember her best for the adaptation of Disney's "The Lion King" on Broadway.

She based "Fool's Fire" on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. In the tale, Hop-Frog falls in love with the beautiful midget Trippetta. The dwarf devises a murderous plan when the king lewdly inspects the tiny dancer, who is costumed as an exotic bird.

Hop-Frog persuades the court to dress up as orangutans as a joke, chains the group together and sets it on fire. "I'm Hop-Frog the Jester and this is my last jest," he exalts.

Miss Taymor is emphatic about her creative philosophy in her video discussing the production of "The Tempest."

"Theater is all the arts combined. Theater is music, it's dance, it's acting, it's visual painting, it's sculpture, it's lighting, it's space. Therefore, all these particular things become the play," the designer and director says.

Miss Taymor began with masks and puppetry but apparently picked up the other skills easily. A bizarre and beautiful magic runs through her entire career. If she lived in another age, she would be called a shaman.

The artist achieved much of her fame with "The Lion King," an entertaining fable set in an animal kingdom. She wanted adults and children to use their imaginations, and she mixed music, staging and half-animal and half-human masked actors. It's an almost unparalleled celebration of visual wonders.

Miss Taymor evokes myth and dreams with the cycles of birth, death and rebirth. She also tells of a son's rite of passage from boyhood to manhood when he comes home from exile.

Most of her work, however, deals with life's often bitter challenges of evil, abuse of power, inhumanity, brutality, revenge, alienation and fate, as well as nightmares and demons.

She always has been drawn to working with epic productions, such as the plays by William Shakespeare and the operas by Igor Stravinsky, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Richard Wagner.

Miss Taymor naturally admires Shakespeare. "He's not afraid of the big stories and eternal issues," she says.

In her productions of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and "Titus," she aimed to marry her avant-garde vision with the timelessness and layering of his messages.

Miss Taymor has been fascinated with theater since she and her sister staged backyard plays at their home in Newton, Mass. The youngest of three children of Betty Taymor, a political activist, and Melvin Taymor, a gynecologist, Miss Taymor says she knew at age 10 that theater would be her life.

She first trained at the Boston Children's Theater, and one summer during high school she traveled to India and Sri Lanka. A photo of her in one of the exhibit's first galleries is labeled "Taymor in Sri Lanka at Age Fifteen, Looking Out at the Indian Ocean."

She joined an experimental theater workshop in Boston during her last year of high school. Her next stop was Paris, where she studied at the Jacques Lecoq mime school and first worked with masks. Miss Taymor also studied film in Paris and especially liked the works of directors Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa.

She enrolled at Ohio's Oberlin College in 1970 and was allowed to earn credit by apprenticing with two New York theater companies. She also studied anthropology at Columbia University with Margaret Mead.

Back at Oberlin, she acted for experimental theater director Herbert Blau. He instructed his performers to find "ideographs" of the action, or pared-down forms that contained the action's essence. For Mr. Blau and Miss Taymor, ideography carried concentrated meaning and became a kind of theatrical sign language. Mr. Blau's theory was influential in her work thereafter.

Miss Taymor graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1974 from Oberlin with a major in folklore and mythology. Her next plan was to learn about traditional and experimental puppetry and to study in Eastern Europe, Indonesia and Japan on a Watson Fellowship.

Indonesia proved the turning point of her career. Her planned stay of three months stretched to four years. While living in Bali, she visited a rare initiation ceremony at an isolated village.

The first part, which she incorporated into her play "Tirai," tells the story of a family of Balinese mask dancers on their way to an initiation ceremony. Titled "The Infinite Walking and the Forever Ceremony," it showed the pilgrimage of hundreds of people laden with food, musical instruments, children, machetes and other things. They all dressed in white and carried their possessions on their heads.

"Transcending time, person and place, 'Tirai' was a blending of a linear dramatic story with surreal imagery that lifted the familiar into the world of dreams and trance states," she writes.

Miss Taymor returned to New York in 1980 and brought her surreal images with her. In "The Tempest" of 1986, she used masks, especially for the spirit Ariel, and a steeply raked plane of black sand as the set.

Caliban, "the monster" as his master Prospero calls him, symbolizes abuse of power and man's inhumanity to man. His elemental head, as designed by Miss Taymor, is extraordinary. Inspired by photos of New Guinea "mud men," she designed a similar primitive, rocklike head. She writes in the exhibit label, "It has only two eye holes, a mouth hole, and two ear holes for detail. It was a total dehumanization of the character."

Miss Taymor reaches her zenith both as designer and as director in two other productions, "Titus Andronicus" and "Oedipus Rex."

Created as a Japanese opera in 1992, her "Oedipus" is the archetypal vision of cruel fate and purification. Miss Taymor conveyed the message of Sophocles' epic through oversized stonelike totemic masks worn on heads and huge sculptural hands.

The colossal room at the end of the exhibit gives a modern twist to traditional Greek tragedy. A shimmering clifflike ridged gold foil forms the backdrop. The chorus is grouped in front. Oedipus, Jocasta, Creon and Teiresias stand rigidly frontal, with Creon pointing enlarged index fingers at Jocasta and Teiresias. Flanking them are headless figures, again inspired by Cycladic sculpture. Skeletal birds fly above. It's a perfect combination of Japanese early Haniwa sculpture and pre-Greek art from the islands of the Cyclades.

The Taymor play and film "Titus" may be too strong for many tastes. Evil and revenge epitomize the central characters of Titus and his fierce female opponent, Tamora. Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange play the grisly pair in the movie, which was released earlier this year.

"Titus" looks back to the revenge and destruction by Hop-Frog in "Fool's Fire" of 1992. Miss Taymor says she used stylization to mitigate the horror of the story of Rome as a symbol of death — yet it's definitely there. Gruesome and grotesque are the words to describe "Titus."

As a modern-day wizard, Miss Taymor employs all the arts for her magical worlds. Combining puppets and masks from Indonesia with her own special vision, she conjures universes unlike any other. Her range is great and her poetry lyrical.

WHAT: "Julie Taymor: Playing With Fire"WHERE: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NWWHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 4TICKETS: $8 for adults, $6 for students and seniors (60 and older), $5 for members and free for children 12 and under. Tickets also may be bought through Vista Ticketing toll-free at 877/700-NMWA (6692) and on the Internet at www.museumtix.com.PHONE: 202/783-5000

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