Critic's Notebook: Julie Taymor's tangled web

Times Square on a warm recent Friday night had the character of an amusement park. The streets were thick with tourists in shorts, snapping pictures, clutching drinks and ice cream cones. Gigantic theme restaurants were jammed. Broadway theaters beckoned with entertainment meant to be the equivalent of a Disneyland ride (and Disney itself is no small presence here). How much longer before the Great White Way hosts attractions like the Great White Wave? Put on your swim suit and jump in.

My heart sank as I entered the Foxwoods Theatre for the "Spider-Man" roller coaster. The ushers wore slightly militaristic uniforms and acted more like guards than guardians of a sacred space for drama. Souvenir stands hawked $40 Spidey T-shirts or the show's CD priced above list. Laden with crunchy snacks and slurpy drinks, families made their way to their seats.

What could Julie Taymor, one of the great theater artists of our day, have been thinking?

By now you surely know the sorry saga of "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark." The record $65-million budget. The decade-long genesis of the project. The previews that went on forever and a day. The death-knell notices by major critics who reviewed the show before its opening. The terrible accidents and blood-lust audiences. The squabbles among Taymor, the producers and, by the end, U2's Bono and the Edge, who wrote the disappointing music and banal lyrics. The firing of Taymor, who was replaced by Philip William McKinley, a Barnum & Bailey man.

I happened to see "Spider-Man" a day after attending the Lincoln Center Festival presentation of "A Magic Flute," a reworking of Mozart's opera by Peter Brook. Although the celebrated British director had asignificant influence on Taymor, the contrast was telling. The morning after watching Spidey fly, I was back at the festival for the "Merce Fair," a celebration of choreographer Merce Cunningham, who first came to attention for his amazing leaps that suggested flight. This Lincoln Center sandwich made it clear to what extent Taymor violated the basic tenets of the stage to which Brook (who is 86) and Cunningham (who died two years ago at 90) subscribed.

I've followed Taymor's work from the beginning of her career when she did costumes, puppetry and masks for Elizabeth Swados' Passover cantata, "The Haggadah," at the Public Theater in New York in the early 1980s. I've seen most of her major work in theater, opera and cinema. She has had her artistic ups and downs, but she has produced astonishing, enthralling vanguard opera, film and theater.

For "Spider-Man," Taymor assembled a superb artistic team with serious operatic credentials. The brilliant sets are by George Tsypin, who works regularly with Peter Sellars. The fantastical costumes are by Eiko Ishioka, the Japanese designer who created the striking look of Paul Schrader's film "Mishima" and the otherworldly robes for the current Netherlands Opera"Ring" cycle. Choreographer Daniel Ezralow was another intriguing choice.

I did not see Taymor's "Spider-Man." Her most enticing-sounding inventions along with her hopeless ones are gone. Blandness is now thought best. Still, the sets and costumes intimated whimsy and wonder. The flying — so unreal, acrobatic and dancelike — was a relief from the compulsion to tell a story in so obvious a manner that you could easily anticipate every next word.

Taymor had been criticized for an addled plot further obscured by mythological contexts. The Geek chorus has been dismissed. We are left with only a couple of clues of what might have been had the conditions for making theater been more supportive.

These are the very conditions Brook discusses in his influential 1966 book "The Empty Space." "I can take an empty space and call it a bare stage," he writes. "A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and that is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged."

It took Brook a long while to get to that point and then even longer to be able to refine "Flute" to a 90-minute version with just seven singers, two actors and a pianist to create a show in which every gesture suggests awe.

In fact, he began his career by doing elaborate opera at Covent Garden in London at the end of the 1940s. His flamboyant 1949 production of Strauss' "Salome" designed by Salvador Dalì was loathed by critics and the public. "One absurdity followed fast on the heels of another," noted music critic and Wagnerian Ernest Newman complained, in words closely echoed by many theater critics about Taymor's "Spider-Man."

No longer welcome at Covent Garden, Brook remained in London and worked in theater. He made a couple of classic films — "Lord of the Flies" and "Marat/Sade." His circus-ring Royal Shakespeare Company production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was a sensation.

But he left that all behind for an empty space. He spent time in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. He formed a small, venturesome company, which he settled in Paris at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, where he could work in the conditions he needed. It was this company that brought us the Indian epic "The Mahabharata," a centerpiece of the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival in 1984.

Brook's return to opera has been mainly to downscale and refashion classics — such as "Carmen," Debussy's "Pelléas et Mélisande" and now his "Flute" — into intimate drama. Taymor, though, has taken the opposite route.

She absorbed Asian influences early and made theater in churches and other small spaces in New York for little money with devoted colleagues. As she became better known, she found ways to bring her masks, her sense of ritual, her love of mythology brilliantly into the mainstream. Her first major opera production — Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" in 1993 starring Jessye Norman, with Seiji Ozawa conducting in Japan — was one of the great modern opera stagings.

But the big time began taking its toll. Her Broadway success with "Lion King" raised her ambition. Hollywood called, and her film career has been uneven but also full of flashes of brilliance. "Across the Universe," her Vietnam War-era film set to Beatles songs, demonstrates a director with a marvelous feel for combining pop culture, music and myth, just what was supposed to happen in "Spider-Man."

I wish Taymor had visited the "Merce Fair," where she would have seen an example of an artist who managed to avoid the need for narrative over a long career. At this daylong event — which included performances by Cunningham's company, films, discussion and concerts — children played with a helium-filled Mylar pillows Andy Warhol had made for a dance and learned the discipline of Cunningham technique. How free this felt, and what a relief after an evening in the Foxwoods' heavily controlled environment.

In one of the films that was shown, Cunningham notes how difficult it can be to make dancers on the stage seem real. "What is real?" he is asked. "It's when they get beyond the perfect stage," Cunningham answers.

The most common complaint about Taymor's "Spider-Man" was that no one could figure out what was going on. But in many theater traditions around the world (including ours), theater need not be a narrative art. It's what you don't understand that can have the greatest resonance. In Brook's "Flute, for instance, getting beyond the perfect could be nothing more than a wink or a walk across stage. Sharing the room with Mozart's music, these gestures produced waves of ineffable meaning. And all that surely came about from slow, careful, quiet, private and, above all, focused work.

By spending buckets of money, relying on complex special effects, choosing a popular-culture subject, Taymor all but invited huge amounts of damning publicity and controversy. There could be no escaping producers breathing down her neck or premature reviews.

Putting on extended previews, with the tickets sold at premium prices, meant the inevitable blogosphere explosion of ill-formed opinions. The critics had no choice but to come early. The understandable tendency was not to try to support any sense of an unrealized vision but to pounce and trounce.

Theater is a fragile medium. What doesn't first work can if the spark is there and if attitudes can be changed. Taymor may have pulled it off adapting "The Lion King" to the Broadway stage, but "Spider-Man" disastrously collided with Broadway's corporate culture.

"Broadway is not a jungle," Brook notes in "Empty Space," "it is a machine."

mark.swed@latimes.com

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