It is perhaps this undivertible drive that rattles those who don’t share it. The kinds of day-to-day missteps that any show endures (and that she tends to plow through) are, with Spider-Man, blown up to enormous proportions, not just because of the show’s budget and prominence in an otherwise small-scale season but because Taymor’s laserlike, slightly alien intensity—and perhaps her gender—make her an easy target. The New York Post’s theater columnist Michael Riedel, who so enjoys needling the show that he’s taken to calling himself its Green Goblin, recently described Taymor as a “pantaLOON” for the cropped trousers she sometimes wears, and for her supposedly spendthrift ways. Cohl says it isn’t true: She sticks to the budget. It’s just that the budget keeps changing.
Riedel has also been spinning drama from the “bloodcurdling” injuries sustained by two of the show’s performers—a story, however sensationalized for his readers, that gets at the dangers and opportunities bound up in the material. Aerial stunts in which actors zoom and battle directly over the heads of the audience are an obvious selling point for a show called Spider-Man; the mezzanine, where many of the liftoffs and landings take place, has been renamed the Flying Circle. It has to look dangerous or there’s no reason to bother, and yet it must be safe, which is why 30 hidden motors control the speed and height and trajectory of the movements. Maintaining the tension between these opposing ideas is crucial to Taymor: When someone shows me a jpeg of the motors, she flaps her hands in front of the computer screen. “Are you trying to take away the magic?” she cries.
Which may be why Riedel was able to make so much hay of the relatively minor incident in which one performer, Kevin Aubin, after being shot from the back of the stage to the front as if by a rubber band, broke his wrists at a group sales event. (Another performer broke a toe on the same maneuver; both he and Aubin are back in rehearsal.) Though Taymor attributes the accidents to “human error,” it will ultimately be up to the New York State Department of Labor to decide whether the show’s most perilous aerial sequences can proceed. In the meantime, Taymor flatly rejects Riedel’s suggestion that she is blithely pushing her “band of flying daredevils” past the bounds of safety. “I take safety very seriously,” she protests, and it’s true that the production plans to train an alternate to relieve the star, Reeve Carney, for a few performances a week. (The show already includes nine Spidey clones who do the most difficult stunts and sometimes serve as his backup dancers.) “But everyone has accidents in theater,” Taymor says. “It’s part of the world you’re in.”
If Riedel’s comments hurt her personally, she doesn’t let on in public. (She says she saves her crying for home.) But she is certainly mystified by the volume and tone of the show’s press coverage, even in the New York Times, which has devoted unusual front-page space to the show’s travails. She is not, after all, some newbie or interloper. She has been a major artist for years, having won a MacArthur “genius” grant as early as 1991, at a time when she was better known for her costumes and puppets than as a director. Over the years, she has refined and blended those interests into a new kind of job description, often taking control of elements that are more typically divvied among several artists. (On Spider-Man, she is director, co-writer of the book, mask designer, and, unofficially, much else.) The unity of vision that results is part of the reason her productions—not just The Lion King but also less commercial work like JuanDarién and Grendel, both composed by her companion, Elliot Goldenthal—have been almost universally praised. They are in the best sense spectacular, even as they feel handmade, and deliver great billows of emotion from little but imagery and movement, sound and surprise.
Such talents and ambition naturally led Taymor to make movies, including the Shakespeare adaptation Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins; the Kahlo biopic Frida, starring Salma Hayek; and the Beatles-catalogue musical Across the Universe—in which Bono plays a Ken Keseyian drug guru. Each is notable for its off-center sensibility. The violence in Titus is more operatic than exploitative, and the scenario of Across the Universe exposes the mechanics of its own cleverness in making the song cues inevitable. In fact, while her shows aspire to a movielike fluidity—“If people say it can only be done in a movie,” she crows, “that’s usually when I want to do it onstage”—her movies seem to deglamorize their filmic prerogatives in order to slow the viewer down. (The most brilliant moments of Frida, which cost only $11 million and won Goldenthal an Oscar for Best Original Score, take you into Kahlo’s paintings with deliberately artificial special effects.) Nevertheless, both kinds of projects, let alone her many opera productions, bear the stamp of a downtown artist with big theories and a powerful, if not always lucid, sense of conceptual purity.