A visit to the Guthrie

August 30, 2011

I grew up in Minneapolis – so my introduction to professional theater was at the Tyrone Guthrie Theater, which was one of the first theaters to take the notion of a resident professional company to the hinterlands when it opened in 1963. It was one of the cornerstones of American regional theater.

But I hadn’t had the opportunity to visit the Guthrie’s new home – which opened in 2006 – since its debut in its new site on the Mississippi River, on the opposite side of downtown Minneapolis from its original location. So, during a recent trip to my hometown, I took in the Guthrie’s production of “God of Carnage” in its McGuire Proscenium Stage.

That, in itself, was a change. The original Guthrie introduced the thrust stage – not quite in the round, but close – to the Twin Cities. While there was a community theater group called Theater in the Round, the Guthrie’s thrust was something new and different.

I will admit to visiting this new Guthrie with a certain amount of regret. The original Guthrie, built next to the Walker Art Center near the lovely Loring Park, remains iconic in my memory. Obviously, the move to a new facility was necessary; the Guthrie had outgrown its old home. But then the Walker made the highly questionable choice of tearing down the old Guthrie, a still-workable and historic performing arts space.

And what did they replace it with? Nothing – a massive green space over a parking garage. Why it couldn’t have been saved and converted to the home of another performance company has never been answered to my satisfaction. It was a bad decision, made worse by the lack of anything to replace the old theater.

The new Guthrie is a gorgeous tower of a building, a vertical experience bathed in a royal blue. Its lobby is spacious, but leads to escalators (or elevators) that whisk you to the performance spaces upstairs.

There is still the trademark thrust – the Wurtele Thrust Stage – where a production of “HMS Pinafore” was playing the night I visited. But I opted for the proscenium production of “God of Carnage,” which I’d seen twice – with different casts – when it played on Broadway.

The production itself was competent without being remarkable. Seeing it with a cast of actors unfamiliar to me (as opposed to one that included Jeff Daniels and James Gandolfini) was revealing, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it showed just how much difference a director makes in a play so dependent on pitch-perfect tone to work. This version was heavy on shtick, milking every pause and transition for easy laughs, rather than the darker, more unsettling ones that the Broadway version produced. Those may be actors’ choices, but the director ultimately sanctions the direction they take.

Which led to another conclusion: that Yasmina Reza’s play is not the instant classic it was hailed as when it opened in New York. Instead, this production showed me that the play itself had plenty of seams – and that the translation is less important than the interpretation onstage. In the Guthrie’s hands, the play seemed schematic and didactic – a series of individual arias, as opposed to a comment on just how close to the edge we all can be. It will be interesting to see how Roman Polanski’s film version, due this fall, holds up.

But the theater itself is a gem – spare but lovely, with comfortable seats and tastefully intriguing furnishings. And the building is a wonder, with its cantilevered balcony deck, complete with seating, overlooking an expanse of the river.

It’s definitely a future destination on return trips to Minneapolis, which I make semi-regularly. On the other hand, I’ll never forgive the Walker for its cavalier treatment of the old Guthrie, which should still be standing, housing another (or more than one) theater company and maintaining its ties to history and the past.

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