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.