Hakuna Matata

To anyone who knows her work, it will probably come as no surprise that Julie Taymor is responsible for the most beautiful theater book of the year. “Julie Taymor: Playing With Fire” (Harry N. Abrams) is a breathtaking look at 20 years in the artistic life of the visionary director and designer behind such groundbreaking productions as “The Hagaddah” – a 1980 collaboration with Elizabeth Swados at the New York Shakespeare Festival, “Juan Darien” and “Transposed Heads,” among many others.

Taymor has a genius for weaving disparate cultural forms, from commedia dell’arte masks to Indonesian shadow puppets, into her own, always haunting theatrical landscapes. It’s instructive to compare, for example, her 1986 Theater for a New Audience production of “The Tempest” with the current staging by George C. Wolfe, both of which stressed themes of colonialization and the master-slave relationship, though to far different effects.

“Playing With Fire” begins with a detailed overview by critic Eileen Blumenthal of Taymor’s work in theater, opera and film. The rest of the book is taken up with photographs of her always astonishing productions, beginning with “Way of Snow” in 1974 and concluding with “Titus Andronicus” in 1994, along with her thoughts about each show.

Reviewing her work, Taymor says, allowed her “to go and see a style or predilection developing, to see the origins of all that.” It also gave her the rare chance to sit in the critic’s chair: “I got the chance to actually say what I had intended with each production.”

Taymor is currently preparing “The Green Bird,” a commedia work, which the invaluable Theater for a New Audience will present in the spring at 42nd Street’s first restored theater, the New Victory. But what’s really got her excited – OK, so I buried the lead – is that she’s creating the live version of “The Lion King” for Disney’s New Amsterdam Theater. It’s very much in the developmental stage, and who knows what will happen 18 months down the road? Nevertheless, she’s psyched.

“I think it’s an incredible challenge,” Taymor says. “I’m into it now. They really give you what you want, and that’s very appealing.”

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