When Julie Taymor first did “Juan Darien,” this writer, director and designer of masks and puppets and sets was a fringe figure. Puppets and masks, after all, were regarded as the province of kooks. Now, as Lincoln Center Theater revives “Juan Darien,” Taymor is suddenly center stage in the brightest spotlight imaginable. Disney has asked her to create a stage version of “The Lion King,” the first full-fledged effort to go into its newly refurbished New Amsterdam Theater. Given the nature of “Juan Darien,” this unprecedented collaboration could produce either a “Lion King” that far transcends the stupid, meaningless film or a spectacle of acrimony between Disney and Taymor that will fill newspaper columns for months. As “Juan Darien” indicates, Taymor is an uncompromising artist. (A decade ago, she designed and directed the best version of “The Tempest” I have seen.) Based on a story by Horacio Quiroga, this play is about a baby jaguar whose mother, like Bambi’s, is shot by hunters. He is adopted by a woman whose own baby has died. Suckling at her breast, he becomes human. He leads the “normal” life of a child on the edge of the jungle, but a lion tamer recognizes that Juan is a jaguar. This frightens the townspeople, who torture him and leave him to die. His fellow jaguars rescue him, and he becomes one of them again. This is a dark story, and Taymor tells it using a phantasmagoric array of puppets, masks and live actors a series of vignettes is narrated through Javanese shadow puppetry. The set of the Beaumont is like a canvas, constantly changing as a master painter wields a deft brush and a rich palette. The action is accompanied by Elliot Goldenthal’s score, based in part on the folk music and rhythms of Latin America and in part on the Latin Mass. The sometimes abrasive, sometimes infectious music reinforces a sense of transubstantiation. Flesh, however, does not become spirit; it melds with primordial nature. The visual sophistication and delicacy of Taymor’s creations seem worlds apart from the mindless score and images of “The Lion King.”
One applauds Disney’s willingness to give its property to Taymor; one hopes the Disney suits will have the integrity to stand by her creation.
The line between fur and flesh isn’t the only blurred distinction in ”Juan Darien,” Julie Taymor and Elliot Goldenthal’s cosmic puppet show about a jaguar cub that turns into a baby boy. In this dark, liturgical pageant of transformations, which opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center last night, states of reality and forms of existence bleed like bright silks in hot water.
Civilization and savagery, life and death, substance and shadow: the barriers between these classic opposites are tenuous here. So, for that matter, is the audience’s sense of the human element in the show.
Is that a living actor or an animated doll up there? Where are those voices coming from? Is there a person manipulating those remarkable birds and serpents that fly and slither in midair?
These questions, prompted by a director who has always specialized in mixed theatrical techniques, have taken on interest that transcends “Juan Darien,” which is, after all, a revival of a 1988 production. You might remember that similar questions were inspired by a very different kind of show, Walt Disney’s Broadway adaptation of its cartoon movie “Beauty and the Beast.”
Now Ms. Taymor, long a cherished denizen of the world of experimental theater and foundation grants, has been tapped to join the commercial mainstream by Disney, which has chosen her to direct the stage version of its animated hit film “The Lion King.”
Thus this new version of “Juan Darien,” a pointedly allegorical work first seen in New York in a former church, acquires its own symbolic significance at the newly (and expensively) renovated Vivian Beaumont: it is, in a sense, a sort of halfway house for an artist poised between chapters of a career. Actually, though she’s preoccupied with mortality and sex in ways her new employers might flinch at, Ms. Taymor has always had a slightly Disneyesque appeal. Her productions (such as last season’s “Green Bird”), do indeed evoke deliberately disorienting theme-park rides, even if the themes happen to be more cerebral than those of, say, “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
“Juan Darien,” directed by Ms. Taymor with an elaborate musical score by Mr. Goldenthal and designed by Ms. Taymor and G. W. Mercier, offers more than its share of visual astonishments and magical metamorphoses. It’s an odd choice, though, for the reopening of the Beaumont.
True, its self-description, “a carnival mass,” suggests something appropriately commemorative. But its sensibility would appear to have little in common with that of Lincoln Center’s subscription audience, who tend to favor a more conventional diet of classics and English imports.
The perspective of “Juan Darien” belongs more to the generation to which Ms. Taymor and Ms. Goldenthal, her longtime collaborator, belong. That’s the generation that came of age in the late 1960’s and early 70’s reading Aldous Huxley’s “Doors of Perception,” taking mind-expanding treks through third-world countries and attending midnight shows of (yes) Disney’s “Fantasia.”
“Juan Darien” earnestly considers a favorite topic of that period: the rules of the world of nature versus those of civilization. Based on a cryptic fable by the Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga, the show chronicles the very eventful childhood of its title character, a baby jaguar who is transformed into a human infant after being adopted by a village woman.
The biblical-feeling persecution of Juan (played by various puppets and an appealing young actor named Daniel Hodd), whose adoptive mother dies while he is still in grade school, begins when he visits a carnival and discovers a perplexing affinity for the caged tigers. The carnival’s brutal animal tamer (Martin Santangelo) senses there’s a real beast inside the boy and tortures it out of him in ways that culminate with a fiery crucifixion and another corporeal transformation.
That’s the basic story line, and, as allegory, it can feel labored. (Ms. Taymor observes in her program notes that “the abominable acts of torture and murder belong to human beings.”) But in portraying the interplay of the worlds of nature and society, and of interior and exterior viewpoints, Ms. Taymor achieves some very haunting effects.
Using an assortment of techniques, ranging from Bunraku and shadow puppets to actors wearing outsized effigies of masks, she plays directly on the fears of mutation that often obsess young children and that pervade the dreams of adults.
A church, rendered in exquisite miniature, crumbles as the leaves of a giant plant poke through; the top of a child’s head pops open to reveal a flower inside; the interior of a village house is suddenly surrounded by a vast canopy of leaves through which squirm feral creatures. And death, the ultimate transformer, stalks the show as a jaunty, dancing skeleton.
Mr. Goldenthal’s eclectic musical score -- a blend of primal jungle calls and liturgical song with whiffs of sharp-edged jazz and Philip Glass’s lush Minimalism -- is of a piece with Ms. Taymor’s visual landscape. It is emotionally gripping, however, only in spurts, most memorably when Juan and his dying mother sing a plaintive, elegiac duet. (The words are all in either Spanish or ecclesiastic Latin.)
Similarly, the show itself is basically a loosely strung necklace of arresting moments. Ms. Taymor’s skills as a storyteller don’t match her abilities as a weaver of phantasmagorias, and the work has its longueurs. But she knows how to catch her audience off guard with inspired shifts of scale and perspective, and there are times when you may feel exhilaratingly like Alice falling down Wonderland’s rabbit hole.
Be warned that while there’s a Disney show in Ms. Taymor’s future, this one is not for children. Both animals and humans perform all their natural functions quite explicitly. And death is very much the main character. Toddlers who cried over the murder of Bambi’s mother are even less likely to sleep easy after “Juan Darien.”
As visually rich as it is musically complex, “Juan Darien, A Carnival Mass” is a comely showcase for director Julie Taymor’s trademark magic of puppetry and masks. If there’s too little joy beneath the beautiful artifice (one waits in vain for a moment of wonder, of awe) in this South American fable of jungle animals and Christian allegory, “Juan Darien” is nonetheless a luscious display of artistry and craft.
Thoughtfully blending rain forest rhythms, the Latin Requiem Mass and Day of the Dead imagery, “Juan Darien” recounts (without a single spoken word -- the text of the mass is sung in Latin) a tale of death and resurrection based on Horacio Quiroga’s Uruguayan myth, with music by Elliot Goldenthal and costumes and masks by Taymor (she’s been tapped by the Walt Disney Co. to develop the stage version of “The Lion King”). A jaguar cub is orphaned by a hunter; a woman, whose own baby has been claimed by a plague, nurses the cub to health and, miraculously, into the human form of a boy, Juan Darien.
Combining elaborate costumes and various forms of puppetry -- from the Japanese bunraku style of wooden figures manipulated by black-clad puppeteers to simple hand puppets a la Punch and Judy – “Juan Darien” follows its protagonist through infancy, the classroom, his mother’s death and, even though still a child, his flogging and crucifixion after a mob learns of his feline birth. In South American style, Juan is resurrected in his jaguar form.
Scene after scene, image after image, unfolds with a dreamlike grace on the spare set (designed by G.W. Mercier and Taymor), beginning with an opening attention-getter: A dollhouse-size mission church, glowing from the inside, begins to crumble piece by piece as a jungle ivy emerges from its interior. The theme of nature vs. religion is set.
And so is the production’s visual standard, though that may not be as complimentary as its sounds. Fairly or not, one rather quickly becomes accustomed to the visual feast, and a more emotional, visceral connection is wanting. “Juan Darien” is easier to appreciate than to love.
About midway through the 90-minute piece, Juan is portrayed not by a puppet but an actual boy, unmasked. Young Daniel Hodd is both a fine soprano and actor, and his performance as the Christ-like child gives the musical some poignancy. Still, “Juan Darien” feels chilly, a tropical musical without humidity. We see it, even hear it, trying for the sublime, but feel it succeed only fleetingly.