At the risk of making too much of the "Circle of Life" theme in "The Lion King," there is something, well, encircling about Julie Taymor opening the Theatre for a New Audience's long-awaited $54 million building in Brooklyn with her staging of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
This is the visionary director-designer's first public project since she was inelegantly fired in March 2011, from the disaster-plagued "Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark." (She has since won a healthy undisclosed legal settlement, and only agreed to this phone interview if I didn't ask about "Spider-Man.")
"Dream," in previews for a Nov. 2 opening, also marks the "Lion King" director's return to the same Off-Broadway company where, in 1986, she was a little-known original staging her first Shakespeare, "The Tempest." In that production, the sprite Ariel was a Japanese Bunraku puppet and monster Caliban wore a mask inspired by the New Guinea mud men. Artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz, who had tracked her down in the phone book after being "blown away" by her designs in someone else's show, says her staging "put us on the map."
It would be a mistake, however, to expect sentimental sound bites from Taymor, 60, who does not mention that "Lion King" just grossed a Broadway record $1 billion, with a $5 billion worldwide gross that is creeping up fast on the $5.6 billion of "The Phantom of the Opera."
To a greeting of "welcome back," she bristles a bit and answers, "I know people say things like that, but I have been doing stuff." She is developing three TV series and trying to raise money to make a movie of Thomas Mann's novel "Transposed Heads." Also, the Metropolitan Opera is bringing back her abridged, English- language version of "The Magic Flute" as a holiday offering.
Asked if working back in the nonprofit world is different from her adventures in the commercial theater, she simply says, "No." She says she considers her film career -- which includes movies of "Titus Andronicus," starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, and "The Tempest" with Helen Mirren as Prospero -- "is absolutely equal in importance to me as theater."
But get her talking about her new production and Horowitz, whom she says "I adore passionately," and unstoppable theatrical images are uncorked.
"The play has this darkness and danger," she explains about what is generally considered one of Shakespeare's most enchanted comedies. "It is night. It's midsummer and shadows are lurking, transforming as the moonlight hits. We play with fabrics. All these ideas come from sleep, from a bedsheet, a dreamscape for humans and forest children ... The children are not just fairies. They are natural forces, the wild element, part of what it means to be human."
She says the new theater, which is open on three sides, is "very demanding for comedy and farcical expression. When everybody sees the audience, projecting imagery in the house is really different."
Of course, this is hardly the first time Taymor has inaugurated a theater and had to "work the kinks out" while rehearsing. "Lion King" was the first full production in Disney's New Amsterdam, and she became the first woman to win a Tony for directing a musical. Theaters from Johannesburg to Frankfurt were designed just for that exquisite and lovable show.
For "Dream," Horowitz loaded in the sets and aerial equipment for modest flying three weeks before tech rehearsals so "we could try things out." He need not mention the aerial emergencies and multiple delays in "Spider-Man," but says, with protective affection, that if the show were postponed, "people would say Julie did it."
Long before what Horowitz calls "the debacle with 'Spider-Man'," he had asked her and composer Elliot Goldenthal (her personal and creative partner) to collaborate on the inaugural production at his yet-to-be-built theater. "They said 'OK, if there is a theater, let's do it.' It was a marker I had."
Horowitz may be the most shocked that there actually is a theater, called the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, after a $10 million naming gift. "It has been a combination of a great ceremony and theater of the absurd," he says. He recounts the long and whiplashing road from the day in 1996 that he and his board chairman contemplated a theater. "It was an enormous, enormous slog," he says happily about what became a $69 million project, with the city responsible for $34.5 million. As he puts it, he went from a $1 million budget in 1996 to 34 years' worth of annual budgets.
They couldn't find available, affordable space in Manhattan, though the company had been a homeless gypsy in 20 different theaters around town. When they were invited to become part of the Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District, he says, Brooklyn hadn't really exploded yet. But it was cheaper to build there than to acquire space in Manhattan one-third the size. He lists a "braid of stuff" working together to make this possible, and has nothing but good things to say about Mayor Michael Bloomberg, "who really understands the power of art in vitalizing communities."
The "Dream" production is budgeted at $1.3 million. In 1997, "Lion King" was considered exorbitant at somewhere between $15 and $20 million and nobody need mention the cost of the Spider-Guy, which is believed to be around $70 million.
"I don't deal with the money," says Taymor without flinching. "The producers deal with the money. I am hired to be an idea person. If you want those ideas, if you want to pay for them, you pay for them. I never knew what the 'Spider-Man' budget was," she said, bringing up the name I was careful to ignore. "I can't make someone spend money they don't have. That is not my responsibility."
Her responsibility, right now, is "Dream," which reunites a lot of the colleagues she warmly refers to as her "old crew." Max Casella, her Timon the Meerkat in "Lion King," is Bottom. David Harewood, who played the CIA chief who got blown up at the end of last season's "Homeland," is Oberon. "Many of the actors are very young, very fresh."
"Midsummer Night's Dream" was never one of her favorites, though Peter Brook's legendary version "was a very important theatrical experience ... I haven't seen a good one since." But now, she says she is "falling in love with it. The whole point of 'Midsummer' is that it's a blessing on a marriage and a blessing on a house." Such a blessing may well be as close to a circle of life as we're going to get. And that may be plenty.