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Theater Review

A Fitting Father to 'Lion King'

Before Julie Taymor brought the Disney spectacle to Broadway, she helped create 'King Stag.' The American Rep show returns, in full splendor.

March 31, 2001|LEWIS SEGAL | TIMES DANCE CRITIC

Thirteen years before her production of "The Lion King" conquered Broadway, Julie Taymor made a down payment on that award-winning Disney stage phenomenon by designing the innovative masks, puppets, costumes and movement for Andrei Serban's American Repertory Theatre production of "The King Stag."

Now back in the Southland, this 1984 transformation of Carlo Gozzi's antique, endearing commedia dell'arte fantasy marked a turning point in Taymor's career--the last time she worked with a director rather than directing a production herself. Moreover, its startling clashes of cultures, epochs, idioms and concepts of stylization broke enough rules of stagecraft to set the seal on her reputation.

Guarded by its giant Buddha and glowing with light from its magical shadow-puppet screen, the much celebrated (and imitated) Serban-Taymor "King Stag" returned to Los Angeles on Thursday, restaged by Abbie Katz for an American Rep tour that included a three-performance stop (ending today) at Royce Hall at UCLA.

Get it while you can. Even in a flat translation by Albert Bermel, the play remains a wonder: a fable or fiabe (Gozzi's term) that manages to tie up in only 90 minutes (no intermission) the story of a desperate search for true love and also a tale expressing the confinement we feel at finding our spirits or souls stuck inside a single physical body--a body that will inevitably grow old and die.

Gozzi treats the dilemma lightly, almost offhandedly, and Serban is alert to every change in mood, narrative context or style. As a result, a play about multiple transformations ends up making the transformative power of theater seem the most miraculous.

In the deliciously faux-Oriental kingdom of Serendippo, Gozzi shows the young and handsome king, Deramo, leaving his human limitations behind and savoring the physical power and freedom of other states of being. But he ends up trapped inside the skeletal carcass of a feeble geezer (a heartbreakingly expressive, life-size Taymor rod puppet). And he wonders (as do we) whether his beautiful new wife will recognize and love him in this pitiful incarnation.

In a white half-mask that evokes Balinese dance-theater, Jay Boyer plays Deramo commandingly, punctuating his speech with twisty, high-stepping choreography, while his angelic Angela (Sarah Howe) accents her lines with formal gestural motifs and wears a mask that links her to nature.

But nature isn't always benign: Prime Minister Tartaglia (Dmetrius Conley-Williams), for instance, may look like a noble courtier, but he shows his true character by spreading his cape to reveal lurid yellow bat wings.

Intersecting their plot line are vivid comic interludes for traditional commedia characters, all fancifully masked and costumed to resemble puppets, and using anachronisms so persuasively that for an instant we really do wonder whether Gozzi wrote about "a '57 Buick" back in 1762.

Brighella (Todd Thomas Peters) is given the funniest jokes--put-downs of the pretentious Smeraldina (Sophia Fox-Long)--but Kevin Bergen makes the low-key imbecility of Truffaldino especially memorable and Evan Zes dodders effectively as Pantalone.

Michael H. Yeargan's set not only allows Buddha to have the last laugh on all deceitful women, but also provides opportunities to showcase Taymor's mastery of shadow imagery--in particular her bright, mutable forest menagerie. "Lion King" fans will recognize the daring shifts in scale, the kites on poles, and the sudden, stage-filling inspirations (a giant bear, for example) that evoke the world of nature so vibrantly.

But her stag puppets are something unique: flat, backlighted creatures with simple, emblematic movement that glow like stained glass and cause the audience to feel just as envious as Deramo of their incandescent beauty.

Besides the performers previously mentioned, the cast includes Jeremy Rabb (Cigolotti), Sean Runnette (Durandarte), Kristine Goto (Clarice) and Jeremy Proctor (Leandro), plus five puppet- and kite-handlers. Grant Smith is the tireless onstage drummer.

Music by Elliott Goldenthal underscores much of the action, but it adds very little and sometimes seems a random intrusion--as if a portable radio had accidentally been switched on in the wings.

*

"The King Stag" continues today at 2 p.m. in Royce Hall on the UCLA campus in Westwood. $12 (students) to $40. (310) 825-2101.

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