The Big House

Public politicking. Cautious programming. Retail-style marketing. Has the Guthrie Theater, with its 1,300 seats and $40 million endowment, become a prisoner of the community that built it?

In the hot, dead days of the theatrical dry season last summer, I stood inside the Loring Playhouse one Sunday evening, gaping through the theater lobby's windows with two strangers at a stunning storm front over Kenwood. We were there to see a reading of two short plays, including an adaptation of an exquisitely painful Joyce Carol Oates story; not surprisingly for low-budget theater, these two Canadian visitors and I were the only audience members. At intermission, the director served us soda and, in our newfound intimacy, we all fell into talking about theater. The well-dressed, fortysomething couple said that they were enjoying an annual summer jaunt to the Twin Cities, and had planned on making their usual visit to the Guthrie. But, as they explained in a soft-spoken, unassuming way, upon arriving they couldn't believe that the Guthrie was staging the lightweight comedy You Can't Take It With You. If they wanted that kind of theater, they didn't have to drive all the way to Minneapolis to find it.

That was the first time it occurred to me that something odd might be happening at the Guthrie--the theater that, for most of its 35-year history, has been regarded as the flagship of the American regional-theater movement. When the next show many of us saw was Blithe Spirit, some audience members were disappointed, particularly "the hard-core Guthrie audience," as Joe Dowling, the Guthrie's Irish artistic director, calls them. "The juxtaposition of those two shows was a mistake, absolutely," Dowling said recently. "I've admitted that and I'm certainly trying to work around that, so that we don't put all the populist plays in one basket.

"You have to build a winner into every season, but not underestimate this community," he added, with the assurance of one who's learned the hard way.

"Populist" is an oft-spoken term for Dowling, and a favored quality in both his play choices and his directorial style. So far, though, the semantic distinction between "populist" and "commercial" remains unclear. To date, Dowling's formula for concocting seasons has been a thick base of comedy and comedic drama sprinkled with a couple weightier works. In his first season, Dowling presented two comedies (She Stoops to Conquer and A Midsummer Night's Dream); two versatile dramas (Philadelphia, Here I Come! and The Cherry Orchard); two heavy dramas (The Price, A Doll's House); and, of course, A Christmas Carol. With the exception of The Cherry Orchard, Dowling's plays were all works he had directed elsewhere; his Midsummer Night's Dream bore an uncanny resemblance to a production of the play he had mounted at Stratford in Ontario in 1993.

The current season has been even more comedy-focused (and just as familiar to the director), with only one serious drama, Racing Demon. And even the more substantial comedies, such as Playboy of the Western World, have been delivered with Dowling's signature super-light touch. The new aesthetic has not gone unnoticed by either audiences or critics. Writing in the Star Tribune in August, 1996, John Habich noted: "Dowling virtually ignored the darker sides of Chekhov's family drama and treated it as a comedy, as its author long ago recommended. She Stoops spilled across the stage in a surfeit of laughter and good spirit. Only in Philadelphia does a sense of sadness and loss linger, and even in this play, the pain is leavened by humor and a sense of humanity's unending ridiculousness." Rather pointedly, Habich added, "Dowling has not attempted to update the plays nor has he subjected them to esoteric artistic concepts, an approach sometimes favored by Dowling's predecessor, Garland Wright, and the directors Wright invited to the Guthrie." At last, people seemed to be thinking, after the abstract, moody Art of Wright and his predecessor, Liviu Ciulei, theater we all could understand, theater served with a smile!

On Monday, Dowling announced plans for his third season, which will begin in July and end in May. Dowling will not stray far from the formula, opening with The Importance of Being Earnest and Turgenev's A Month in the Country, in an adaptation by Brian Friel which, the Guthrie assures us, is "filled with humor and warmth." A 1748 Italian farce, The Venetian Twins, will be adapted by Kevin Kling to take place in modern-day Minnesota, followed by A Christmas Carol.This time, Dowling is saving his heavier fare for winter and spring: The Magic Fire, an autobiographical piece by Lillian Garrett-Groag about growing up in Argentina under Peron; a Julius Caesar set in the 20th century (which Dowling did five years ago at Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre); and Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke.

The Magic Fire is an interesting choice, to be sure (as is the prominent theme of midlife female sexual frustration in Summer and Smoke and A Month In the Country). Yet above the fanfare that has trumpeted Dowling's revivification of a venerable theatrical institution and will no doubt accompany this new season, a troubling set of questions has come into focus. The theater faces momentous challenges--feeding the maw of the box office, surviving a national funding squeeze, and beating off new competition from touring blockbusters--and the shifting identity of the Guthrie may be edging toward a kind of definitional paradox: How many compromises can the Guthrie make to preserve its mission without compromising the mission itself?

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