In the nave of St. Clement's Episcopal Church -- two blocks west of Broadway and a world away -- a vertical sea of thick jungle greenery shifts and throbs, disgorging huge puppets in the form of a snake, lizards, mating beasts, and dragonflies. On a scale model of a South American town the size of two telephone booths, a stick-figure funeral procession (complete with incense bearers barely one foot tall) marches solemnly up the hill as enormous vultures circle overhead. In the town square, a mother grieves. She is portrayed by two masked performers -- one for her huge face, the other for her hands -- while a third performer, also masked, plays a whole trio of wailing women all by herself. Night falls, and the hillside comes alive with shadow puppets seen through the walls of their houses, dancing, drinking, copulating, and combing their hair. A life-size skeleton dances with a derby on his head and a little tiny puppet butterfly balanced on the tip of his outstretched fingers.

"AMAZING MOMENTS OF MYSTERY, MYTH, AND MAGIC!" That is what the carnival that parades through Horacio Quiroga's "Juan Darin" promises. And in the music-theater piece named for the seventy-year-old short story, the designer and director Julie Taymor, 36, delivers exactly that. In images drawn from deep in the unconscious, she tells the story of a baby jaguar taken from the forests and transformed by a woman's compassion into a little boy.

In the United States, masks and puppets are consigned to the margins: to children's theater or to folklore exhibits. But in other cultures, notably in the Far East, puppet theater traffics in universal concerns as simple as life and death, as complicated as history, mysticism, and desire. As an outline of her pieces reveals, this is Taymor's sort of theater, and in the nine years since she unveiled her first piece in the United States, Way of Snow, in a SoHo loft theater, she has been building a reputation as an artist both bold and subtle, sophisticated and populist.

All signals indicate that her fame is not going to stay underground much longer. Juan Darin -- which on December 26 returns, at last, after a triumphant three-week, sellout engagement in March of 1988 -- is by all accounts her finest work to date. Do not wait to book tickets. St. Clement's seats 99, and the ten-week run is sure to sell out early -- especially after it gets a boost from a clip that will air nationally in January as part of the festivities for the first annual Los Angeles Music Center's Chandler award (the West Coast answer to the Kennedy Center Honors). Taymor is being honored in the theater category -- chosen by the man who will be recognized as a Twentieth-Century Master in the same category, Harold Prince.

Like many of Taymor's other projects in the past six years, Juan Darin was developed in collaboration with the eclectic composer Elliot Goldenthal, 35. After working together on several productions in which music took a backseat to the book, Goldenthal and Taymor decided to dispense with text and create a score based on the Mass, sung entirely in Latin and Spanish. While preparing the show, they spent two months traveling in Mexico -- from Oaxaca to the Yucatn to San Cristbal de las Casas, up in the mountains where the Chamula Indians live. "I was inspired by the Mexican faces as well as the painters," says Taymor, "and Elliot was listening to old pianos in bars, radios, drunken music -- that kind of mixture." All these things, variously transmuted, found their way into the piece. New Age, rhumbas, mariachi music, and sheer noisemaking percussion -- listeners have detected all these in Goldenthal's strangely veering score. As Michael Feingold wrote in the Village Voice, it "shares with the puppetry the spirit of pure play, the fun of shaking beanbags or banging on hubcaps."

Taymor was first recognized for her talents as a designer. She created larger-than-life shadow puppets for Elizabeth Swados's The Haggadah at the Public Theater in 1980. Her memorable designs for Andrei Serban's staging of The King Stag at Robert Brustein's American Repertory Theatre, in Cambridge, Massachusetts -- featuring Korean-style festival masks and gorgeous translucent-silk Bunraku puppets, which brought an Asian delicacy to Carlo Gozzi's rowdy commedia dell'arte -- have been admired all over the world. Like several other designers, Taymor has also taken up directing -- she has done two productions apiece of Shakespeare's The Tempest and The Taming of the Shrew -- but the works that are most truly hers are those she has both designed and directed, while collaborating on their texts and musical scores.

Way of Snow, the first of these, began with an Eskimo legend (wherein a few feathers and some fish-skeleton shadow puppets succinctly signified an angry goddess and a starving tribe), segued into a culture-clash drama about a farmer whose bull is killed by a motorcar, and ended in New York City (its skyscrapers represented by projected IBM cards) with the tale of a telephone operator going out of her mind. Next, in 1985, came Liberty's Taken, a bawdy comic historical picaresque for the Castle Hill Festival, in Ipswich, Massachusetts, about the American Revolution, with over 150 puppets and masks. The third was The Transposed Heads, an adaptation by Sidney Goldfarb of Thomas Mann's novella, seen off-off-Broadway, at Philadelphia's American Music Theater Festival in 1986, and at Lincoln Center.

Four works in ten years may not seem like much unless one considers that Taymor builds these works literally from scratch.  Not only does she design and build by hand each of the masks and puppets, but she also has to train each performer individually in the combination of dance, music, acting, and puppetry her original works requires.

"It's very exhausting," says Taymor. "I can't design a mask and say to someone else, 'Just do it.' It's partly because I'm a better sculptor than I am a drawer. Considering the amount of time it would take me to draw exactly what I want, I might as well sculpt it. I paint most of it, too. It's incredibly time-consuming, so I end up turning down a lot of jobs I want to do."

Besides remounting Juan Darin, Taymor is currently adapting Edgar Allan Poe's stories "Hop-Frog" and "The Tell-Tale Heart" for the PBS television series "American Playhouse," to be aired around Halloween of 1990. Besides, she is in the throes of preparing her most ambitious undertaking yet, an opera called Grendel, after John Gardner's novel and the Old English epic Beowulf, which inspired it. Goldenthal is again her collaborator, and the premiere is tentatively set for the 1991 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. "Grendel will be even bigger than Juan," she groans. "It's a hundred and fifty to 200 puppets. Not little things, either, but big things. Gearing up for that is...!"

Puppetry is a hands-on craft that, in our high-tech world, seems to belong to another age. Yet as a brief tour of the airy Manhattan loft Taymor shares with Goldenthal makes clear, she is no antiquarian. The wall space is layers deep in masks and puppets, but when Taymor finishes showing a visitor a ship's figurehead from Liberty's Taken, she nonchalantly drops it on the windowsill next to the Macintosh SE computer on which she composes her scripts and which Goldenthal uses to program his electronic keyboards.

Combining ancient cultures and modern life has been a lifelong fixation for Taymor. Born and raised in a high-powered Boston family (her father, a physician, is an infertility specialist; her mother is a Boston College government instructor and has been a delegate to the Democratic State Committee), she majored in folklore and mythology at Oberlin. Her sophomore year was spent in New York apprenticing with Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet Theater and Joseph Chaikin's Open Theater. After college, she went traveling on a one-year Watson Fellowship and wound up in Indonesia, where she stayed for four years, eventually forming her own company of dancers, puppet makers, and performers -- and creating Way of Snow.

Working in Bali and Java gave Taymor an idealized picture of theater, in terms of both its place in society and the quality of performers. Returning to American was a rude shock. "In Asia, I was spoiled, working with people who could act, sing, and dance," she says. "In the West, people don't expect theater to include dance. It's just not necessary, so why should people be trained to dance, except in musical comedies? Then it's the chorus, so you don't get the acting, and it's only a certain kind of singing. So the style becomes very limited. That's why a lot of work I've done has suffered, like The Transposed Heads. One person could dance, one could sing, someone couldn't act. Because people weren't trained to do it all, we never felt as if we completely saw the show we wanted to see."

Training her performers individually, like sculpting her own masks, is something Taymor does by necessity. It is a lot more time-consuming than simply hiring actors with the technique to perform The Importance of Being Earnest or La Traviata.

"Mostly I look for actors who can move real well," says Taymor. "A lot of dancers are terrible with masks; because they're not actors, they're not used to imitating. They tend to be too neutral, or they do too much movement with their bodies and don't understand that a lot of the impact of a mask comes through the focus of the eyes. That's the main thing I can see in an audition; I can see it in three seconds. The puppetry is the same thing. They have to be fascinated by the puppets."

Now Taymor is grappling with yet another medium. Her excitement about her films for "American Playhouse" is keen. Though she has no interest in conventional moviemaking, she is curious to see how her own style will translate to film. "My theater work is not filmic, but it uses depth and scale and fragmentation in a very filmic way. If I need to have a close-up, I have a huge mask. If I need to have simultaneous action, I have a shadow screen with the miniatures right next to the close-up. I also do these pieces in thirty scenes that most people think have the epic scale of films." Her adaptation of Poe's "Hop-Frog" will feature two live actors, a dwarf, and a midget; the other characters will be puppets and masked actors. "For most people dwarves are like puppets," she notes, "so it will be interesting to have a dwarf be the reality."

Taymor's originality and vision place her in the company of the artists in many media whom she most admires: Ariane Mnouchkine and Peter Brook in the theater, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa in film, the Quay brothers and Jan Svankmajer in animated film. Yet her combination of high literature, music, spectacle, film, and theatrical artifice is a medium she has had to invent for herself.

"I'd never have been able to create Juan Darin if I weren't a designer," Taymor says, "because I think of how a piece will work technically and then allow that to be in the writing. But if I'm just a designer, I'll never get material that allows me to do what I do best. That's why I find plays that are all dialogue, except for Shakespeare, to be much more limiting. What I do on the stage, people could do in film -- 'Get me a hundred butterflies,' let's say. But people aren't going to do that unless they have the imagination to think that way. So I have to be everything that I am."

She heaves a mock sigh. "It is one thing, but there's no name for it, what I do."

Connoisseur, December 1989