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Critic's Notebook: Julie Taymor's tangled web

The ousted director of 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' ignored basic tenets of the Broadway stage, and it cost her, and the show, dearly.

July 24, 2011|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Patrick Page, left, and Reeve Carney in "Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark."
Patrick Page, left, and Reeve Carney in "Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark." (Jacob Cohl )

From New York — — 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.

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