One of my absolute favorite places in the Twin Cities is the Guthrie Theater. I was fortunate to grow up in a family that prioritized arts exposure, and our love of performance has stuck with all of us as we grew up. My first Guthrie experience was a season ticket pass my mom gifted to my sister and me when I was in seventh grade, including “Pride and Prejudice” and “Romeo and Juliet.” I fell in love instantly, and since that fateful 2003 season, I’ve been incredibly lucky to have seen over 40 productions by the Guthrie…including four visits there in the last four weeks. It’s been a very Guthrie April, and has truly been a case of the good, the bad, and the ugly!
Starting on a high note: As I mentioned here, Hannah and I took in a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” from the front row. “Midsummer” is admittedly one of artistic director Joe Dowling’s all-time favorite plays, and never disappoints when he stages it…I’ve seen two different productions by the Guthrie in the twelve years I’ve been a regular attendee. This one was absolutely transcendent…stunning use of digital media as a backdrop, costuming that couldn’t have been more perfect, and a cast of truly stand-out actors, including the super-hot Nicholas Carriere as Oberon and Tyler Michaels, Minneapolis’s uber-talented new breakout actor du jour, as Puck. I often caught myself holding my breath in sheer delight at how utterly beautiful the whole production was.
Of course anything that followed “Midsummer” would have seemed a bit lacking to me, but I was completely taken aback by just how ugly the “ugly” of the Guthrie’s April offerings proved to be. This year the Guthrie introduced a great young professionals’ organization, Open Call, which has totally enhanced my experience as a patron of the theater…tickets to four shows, monthly happy hours, and admittance to the Midsummer Night’s Ball, which I mentioned here. Our third show was “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play,” and I had absolutely zero idea what the show was about.
The premise of “Mr. Burns” was, if not promising, at least thought-provoking…the USA has just experienced a nuclear holocaust, and the survivors are attempting to find meaning and rebuild their shattered lives. The vehicle through which they do so? Attempting to reconstruct an episode of “The Simpsons” from memory. Structured into three parts, the show begins with the survivors around a campfire, interrupting and talking over each other as they attempt to remember a lost fragment of the show. From then, the audience is rocketed ahead seven years, to find that recreating sitcoms as “plays” has become a popular form of post-apocalyptic entertainment, and our survivors are a company of actors performing “The Simpsons.” The third act jumps ahead another seventy years and illustrates how distorted anything gets with time, transforming “The Simpsons” into some kind of Gilbert and Sullivan-esque vaudeville. We wouldn’t know…we left at intermission.
I’ve never left ANY performance in my entire life at intermission, campers. Truly nothing I’ve ever seen has hit a nadir where I felt like my time was better spent trimming my cuticles, but I found myself suffering through Mr. Burns wishing I’d had the wherewithal to pack a nail file. The dialogue was stilted and scattered, the staging was stiff and forced, and the acting felt lackluster and uninspired. It honestly seemed at times like the actors had all been thrown up there with little preparation and even less investment in what they were portraying, and it carried over into the audience. It’s not just that I’m not a fan of “The Simpsons”…it could have been “Friends,” or “Gossip Girl,” and I would still have been counting the minutes. With laughs few and far between, we weren’t the only ones making a hasty exit at intermission…a trend that, according to the Guthrie’s Facebook page, has continued through its entire run.
Fortunately for my love of the Guthrie, we returned a short four days later for a preview night performance of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” Another of Dowling’s favorites, this production couldn’t have been more of a reverse from “Mr. Burns.” I vividly remember reading the play in Terri Delebo’s Honors English class and loving the incisive social commentary and powerful, moving prose. This production featured several Guthrie/U of M BFA candidates as the bewitched girls, but Eric Heger as John Proctor (obviously) stole the show. I had chills when he uttered the famous lines “You have pulled down Heaven and raised up a whore!” and “BECAUSE IT IS MY NAME!” and was genuinely tearing up by the end. The set is sparse and eerie, the movement and staging truly seems possessed at times, and the alternatingly restrained and insane sides of the characters kept me on the edge of my seat. A must-see, for anyone who appreciates theater!
Finally, and appropriately, my mom and I were incredibly privileged to attend “In Conversation” on Tuesday night for Joe Dowling’s final interview as the artistic director of the Guthrie. After a twenty-year tenure, Dowling is preparing to step down this June, and it truly signifies the end of an era for Minnesota theater. I’ve heard him speak (briefly) once before, but this presented an entirely different level of candor, humor and charm from him. He truly is one of the most formidably intelligent, charismatic, witty speakers I’ve ever had the honor of listening to. Topics ranged over his lifelong battle to overcome natural shyness, his impressions of Minnesota at the beginning and end of his time here, his friendship with Arthur Miller (um, HI), his role in developing the Guthrie’s new space and revitalizing its repertoire, and his hopes and plans for the future. I clapped until my hands were raw at the end…he leaves behind big shoes to fill.
One of the best quotes from the evening related to what makes a play good: per Joe, theater must challenge you, touch you, inspire you, move you, teach you, or in some way leave you feeling connected when you leave the theater in order for a play to be a success. I think it’s clear that, for me, the Guthrie has managed to do all of the above, and I look forward to years of continued enjoyment to come in the “downtown Ikea” of a big blue theater on the Mississippi River.