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Myriad artifacts in exhibit

Lions and tigers and bears are prowling Washington's National Museum of Women in the Arts these days. They're part of the exhibit, "Julie Taymor: Playing with Fire."

Filling two floors, the exhibit features everything from exquisitely lighted set models and collages of research material from the director/designer's Tony-winning Broadway musical, "The Lion King," to the imposing masks and costumes for her 1992 staging of Stravinsky's opera, "Oedipus Rex."

One gallery contains several oversized Brazilian Indian figures -- a flute player, an adolescent girl, a mother and nursing child -- from Center Stage's 1982 production of Christopher Hampton's "Savages," for which Taymor created puppets and masks.

Center Stage gave Taymor her first professional job in the United States, and this exhibit traces her creative growth before and after that pivotal point. (She is currently negotiating with Miramax to direct a biographical film about artist Frida Kahlo, starring Salma Hayek.)

The retrospective begins in the mid-1970s with work Taymor did in Indonesia, which has been a continuing influence. Particularly stunning is a two-dimensional Eskimo goddess from her first original theater piece, "The Way of Snow." Mounted between giant sheets of glass, the figure is elaborately painted on buffalo hide with details that reward close examination -- igloos on an upper arm, snails below the ears and various sea and land creatures forming the toes. At a luncheon at the National Press Club on Wednesday, Taymor spoke of a life-changing night she spent in Bali where she was able to look behind the scenes at a shadow puppet show. "The artistry was there, even if the audience couldn't see it," she realized. This exhibit gives viewers a chance to examine her artistry up close and personal, in a manner not possible from a theater seat.

Other exhibit highlights include a pair of battling sea captain puppets seated opposite buxom ship's figureheads on moving seesaws from "Liberty's Taken" (1985), the music theater piece that attracted Disney's attention and led to Taymor's being hired for "The Lion King;" as well as a gigantic blue-and-white parachute silk puppet of a part-snake, part-bird creature with pendulous breasts, wings that resemble kites and a beak-like nose from "The Green Bird," the 18th-century satirical fable she revived on Broadway last season.

"Julie Taymor: Playing with Fire" continues through Feb. 4 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave., N.W., Washington. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for students and seniors; children under 12 are admitted free. The exhibit is accompanied by screenings of Taymor films, workshops and family events. For information, call 202-783-5000.

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