Be it a coincidence or not, director-designer Julie Taymor is making her return to the New York theater scene just as a tell-all book about behind-the-scenes turmoil that occurred during Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the mega-musical from which she was fired during preview performances, is being released.
The book, penned in a self-pitying tone by her writing partner Glen Berger, paints her as an inspired but inflexible visionary who pursues her high-minded, esoteric concepts at the expense of coherent storytelling, which leads to tragic results for practically everyone involved in the show, which finally opened under the supervision of the practical-minded Philip William McKinley.
Before Taymor shot to fame as the Tony-winning director of the mega-successful, Tony-winning musical The Lion King (which reached the billion-dollar mark just a few weeks ago), she directed Shakespeare plays for Off-Broadway’s Theater for a New Audience. To inaugurate the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, TFANA’s fancy new digs in downtown Brooklyn, a tall black-box marked by a rectangular thrust stage and shallow balconies that evokes the Globe, Taymor has mounted an extremely elaborate staging of the popular comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It features a cast of no fewer than 36 actors (half of whom are children playing fairies), imaginative costuming and puppetry that looks borrowed from The Lion King, shadow play and, apparently undaunted by her humiliating Spider-Man experience, a good deal of high-wire flying and other aerial circus stunts. Her most fascinating ploy is to have Bottom wear an elaborate donkey’s head with a mouth that moves in sync with Max Casella’s speech since the actor manipulates it using hand-held levers. The gentle score by Elliot Goldenthal, Taymor’s husband, smoothly shifts in tone to match the multiple atmospheres depicted in the play.
While there are countless moments of visual wonder that were clearly inspired by various sources of non-Western drama, as is often the case with Taymor, she lets her wild, eclectic imagination overtake and overwhelm the play itself, leading to a production that may please the eye but will disappoint anyone who wanted to see a Shakespeare comedy instead of another overblown Julie Taymor spectacle.
In order to make room for Taymor’s excessive and surreal theatrics, the production runs no less than three hours. It does, however, run extremely short on comedy, although the red-haired Kathryn Hunter makes for a very nimble Puck and David Harewood is an unusually sexual and imposing Oberon. Taymor is least successful with her handling of the young lovers and their misadventures in the forest.
Based on her history and this most recent result, it’s hard to imagine producers, or even audiences, continuing to have faith in Taymor’s ability to direct anything besides an avant-garde fashion show. But problems aside, here’s looking forward to attending future shows at the gorgeous Polonsky Shakespeare Center, which this season alone will include King Lear directed by Arin Arbus, who has previously helmed Othello, Macbeth and other Shakespeare plays for TFANA, and Ionesco’s The Killer with Michael Shannon.