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JULIE TAYMOR: Redefining 'Playhouse'

March 22, 1992|Susan King | TV Times Staff Writer

Julie Taymor, one of the most innovative talents in the world of theater and opera, brings her unique vision to the small screen in the "American Playhouse" production of "Fool's Fire," airing Wednesday on PBS. A recent recipient of the MacArthur Foundation "Genius Award" and winner of the first Dorothy B. Chandler Performing Arts Award in 1990, Taymor conceived and directed the comedy of revenge based on Edgar Allan Poe's short story, "Hopfrog."

Michael Anderson of "Twin Peaks" plays Hopfrog, a dwarf court jester who plays the "fool" to a corpulent king and his seven equally grotesque ministers. When the king organizes a masquerade ball, he calls upon Hopfrog to create costumes for himself and his ministers. After Hopfrog witnesses the king's cruel treatment of the tiny dancer Trippetta (Mirelle Mosse), Hopfrog decides to get his revenge at the costume ball.

"Fool's Fire" was filmed using 35mm film and HDTV (high-definition television) special effects. Taymor created and designed the larger-than-life-sized characters that populate the film.

A gradute of Oberlin College, Taymor studied mime and masks at the Ecole du Mime de Jacque Le Coq in Paris and Eastern performance forms at the American Society for Eastern Arts in Seattle. While on a Watson Fellowship in Indonesia from 1974 to '78, Taymor developed a mask/dance company called Theatre Loh. She has created the sets, costumes, masks and puppets for a number of productions including "The Haggadah" at the New York Shakespeare Festival and "Savages" at Center Stage. She won her second Obie and an American Theatre Wing Award for her 1990 production of "Juan Darien," which she co-wrote, directed and designed.

Taymor also will be the focus of a 10-part PBS series, "Behind the Scenes," airing in September, and will direct Stravinksy's opera "Oedipus Rex" in Japan this summer.

Julie Taymor discussed "Fool's Fire" with TV Times Staff Writer Susan King.

"Fool's Fire" is very different fare for "American Playhouse." Did you approach the PBS series with the idea?

(Executive producer) Lindsay Law had seen my work in the theater, which has varied from doing Shakespeare--"The Tempest" and "The Taming of the Shrew"-- to "Juan Darien," which I co-created with the composer Eliot Goldenthal, who is my longtime collaborator in the theater and now film. (Law) commissioned the script and read it and he said, "I don't know how you are going to do it, but go ahead." Basically, it was 'You figure it out.'

What were the differences between directing for the theater and opera and directing a film?

A lot of the pieces I have created from scratch and adapted for the theater involved transformations and levels of reality and levels of what would be called naturalism juxtaposed with levels of fantasy.

Lindsay knew I was interested in making the transition to film, and what I wanted to do in my first films was bring some of the styles I have been working and try it out and do it very cinematically.

I think other directors who deal with drama theater pieces, who are limited to five characters and a living room set and kitchen set, have a harder time moving to film because they are not used to being highly visual.

Though my visual theater is not realistic, it still has grand scale to it. I will have a whole village, I will have a whole carnival. I will find theatrical means to do it. It is thinking in larger cinematic pictures and using close-ups and long shots on stage, but playing with scale. I didn't find it hard to change my way of thinking. I just had different tools to work with.

How did you decide to use High-Definition Television in "Fool's Fire"?

We didn't have enough money. It ended up being the things I could do in HDTV--if I had done them in traditional film opticals we could never have afforded it. I had met Barry Rebo of Rebo Studios (which specializes in HDTV) and he had also seen my theater work and felt the kind of work that I do is perfect for HD.

I was very reticent to get involved. This is my first film and I don't like video. I don't like the electronic look. I was very nervous about combining them. I didn't want to do it all in HD because there are a lot of other limitations--the cameras, the lenses are not up to the level of normal film cameras.

Using HD you are able to create layers like in the ballroom sequence. Sometimes there are four layers--live people, miniature puppets, fire, miniatures--all matted using blue screen techniques. All of those elements were shot separately and put together in post-production. The big advantage is that you can see it while you are shooting it. Opticals is a big guessing game.

Would you explain why all the characters in "Fool's Fire" are portrayed by puppets except for Hopfrog and Trippetta?

I have felt very self-conscious in the films and theatrical productions I have seen and witnessed that dwarfs are really used as objects. Michael Anderson will attest to the fact that he has always been a special-effect in films. And this story, in order to really go along with what Hopfrog does to these people, you must have him be fully dimensional, fully human. You must identify with him as the victim.

"Fool's Fire" airs on "American Playhouse" Wednesday at 8 p.m. on KPBS and KCET.

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