Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The New Guthrie

Last evening Joshua and I attended a performance of "The Glass Menagerie" at the new Guthrie Theater.

It was the first time we had attended a performance in the new theater complex, but it was not the first Guthrie offering we have attended. Last year, at Easter, Josh and I attended a performance of "Hamlet", the final offering at the old Guthrie Theater. Josh had come home with me for Easter break last year, and on a lark we decided to go downtown and see the old Guthrie Theater and attend a performance there before it was abandoned.

The old theater was only forty years old, but the Guthrie claimed that it needed a new and larger facility, and somehow it succeeded in convincing substantial numbers of Minneapolis donors that a new building was justified.

When the new facility first opened last year, Josh and I walked through and examined the building one weekend, but last night was the first actual performance we attended in the new structure.

The best thing I can say about the new Guthrie Theater is that it did not cost a great deal of money. The new theater houses three stages--an 1100-seat thrust stage, a 700-seat proscenium stage, and a 250-seat studio theater--and the entire project came in at $125 million, about half what a large performing-arts complex generally costs these days.

Consequently, the final result was comparatively cheap.

And the building looks cheap.

The exterior is hideous. Its form mimics the surrounding grain mills and grain elevators, which is not an inherently bad idea, given the building's location. However, what architect Jean Nouvel came up with is an unmitigated architectural disaster: an ugly, misshapen blob, with an indigo cladding, featuring a now-infamous "bridge to nowhere" jutting out from the building. The overall aesthetic effect of the exterior is extremely unpleasant--it looks like nothing so much as a very, very bad office building of a corporation with a very, very peculiar CEO.

The interior, however, is even more of a disaster. The main lobby is four floors above street level, and patrons must ascend two long, long escalators to reach the main lobby. Once there, they are confronted with what has to be the ugliest theater lobby ever created, as well as a series of long, white, and amazingly boring hallways that, in jumbled and confusing fashion, lead to other parts of the building.

Who was responsible for approving this mess?

The new Guthrie Theater was Jean Nouvel's first American project. He is still best known for his first important building, the 1987 Institut Du Monde Arabe in Paris. That building is no deathless architectural masterpiece, inside or out, but it is light years better than the new Guthrie. Nouvel also designed the Cultural And Congress Center in Lucerne, including its concert hall. I happen not to like that particular building, but it nevertheless is nowhere near the meritless structure Nouvel devised for Minneapolis. (I have never visited Nouvel's new Musee De Quai Branly in Paris; I saw it many times during the construction phase, but scaffolding and plastic wrap prevented any serious examination of the exterior.)

I strongly suspect that the new Guthrie building will have an even shorter lifespan than the old Guthrie building, which was a typical example of 1960's concrete modernism that should never have been abandoned. In fact, I will be greatly surprised if the new Guthrie edifice is still standing when I am sixty years of age.

The Guthrie Theater, as a theatrical institution, is going through a very bad period right now, so it is only fitting that the institution occupy a bad building. The company has lost its way. It has departed from its original mission and it needs to find a way to return to that original mission.

When the Guthrie Theater opened, in 1963, it was America's first important regional theater, and the quality of its productions rivalled those of London. Only the finest directors and actors were engaged, and the chosen repertory was serious and elevated, with no concessions whatsoever to popular taste.

That particular state of affairs only lasted for about ten years, at which point the theater seemed to become less and less interested in producing theater at the highest possible level and more and more concerned with "audience development". Today the Guthrie Theater is a mere entertainment venue designed to appeal to a mass audience. The theater's decline from greatness to mediocrity has saddened and appalled many Minneapolis theater lovers, who cannot even talk about today's Guthrie without fighting back tears.

I have nothing against entertainment, and I have nothing against a mass audience, but tax-free institutions supported by tax-deductible donations are required, by law, to engage in educational and artistic pursuits, and not in the provision of mass-audience entertainment, which requires no government subsidy. I only wish that Senator Gassley's committee were paying as much attention to America's state-subsidized theaters as it is paying to America's state-subsidized museums. All of these institutions are in need of a good, hard, public shaking-up, and it cannot come soon enough.

And the Guthrie needs a good, hard, public shaking-up. The quality of its performances is no longer high, and its repertory is quite clearly chosen on the basis of commerical viability, not artistic merit. Minneapolis theater-goers are not experiencing the world's finest directors and actors, and Minneapolis theater-goers are not experiencing the best of world drama, ancient and modern.

Joshua was shocked when, almost a year ago, he and I went to see the Guthrie's "Hamlet". He was acquainted with the Guthrie's reputation, of course, but he had never before attended a Guthrie performance. (Last year's "Hamlet" was staged because an elaborate "Hamlet" had opened the old theater in 1963, and it was determined, with great fanfare, that an elaborate "Hamlet" should close the old theater in 2006.)

The reason Joshua was so shocked by that "Hamlet" was because the performance was so bad. And it WAS a terrible performance that we witnessed--a terrible performance of a terrible production. In fact, I was embarrassed, because it was the first performance of anything that Josh attended in my home town, and he was not seeing anything to make the Twin Cities proud. At the conclusion of the performance, Josh joked "I hope the actors do not quit their day jobs as supermarket check-out clerks"--and Josh was entirely justified to say that, as his sentiment applied to everyone appearing in that production, top to bottom, from the actor playing the title role down to the smallest bit player.

And I do not wish to single out the Guthrie for criticism, because I have seen far, far worse elsewhere. In Washington, the quality of the productions and performances at Arena Stage (not to speak of its lowest-common-denominator repertory) was indescribable--it is surely the worst theater company on the planet, bar none, and the one with the dumbest audience--and the Shakespeare Theater in Washington was not much better.

And I fully realize that America is not and has never been a nation with a rich theatrical culture. Nonetheless, institutions that have accepted the public's trust (and its tax-deductible dollars) to produce high-level theater should make at least a half-hearted effort to deliver on that promise. And the Guthrie--and the Guthrie has a lot of company elsewhere--has stopped doing so.

The only reason that Josh and I even attended last night's performance of "Menagerie" was because my parents had recommended it to us. The production had received good notices (which must always be taken with a grain of salt here in the Twin Cities) and we were sort of curious to see Harriet Harris and we knew that this was the last week of performances of the run and we were sort of curious to see the Guthrie building in use during an evening in which two or more of its theaters were in use. And we went, and we were glad that we went.

The perfomance was OK--and a hundred times better than that amateur "Hamlet" we suffered through a year ago (although the actors last night did not have to deal with iambic pentameter)--and we had a good time. Harriet Harris was fine. The director, Joe Dowling, an Irishman who is the Artistic Director of the Guthrie Theater, had two different actors play the role of Tom--one to do the narrative parts, and one to do the interactions with the other characters--and this bit of nonsense did not seriously detract from the play or the performance.

However, both Josh and I found the play itself to be somewhat boring. Both of us have read the play and both of us have seen this particular Williams play staged a couple of times before, and "Menagerie" is not a play that can be seen over and over and over--it is not quite mature Williams, and it lacks the theatricality of "Streetcar" or "Cat", and its characters lack the complexity of Blanche DuBois, Williams' single greatest creation. "Menagerie" is a nice little play that can be seen once or twice, but after that its allure becomes less and less enticing. I doubt that either Josh or I would want to see this play again for twenty or thirty more years.

This production of "The Glass Menagerie" at the Guthrie has not sold well. In fact, this production has been conspicuous for its disappointing sales, and many persons in the theater community here have been scratching their heads about its lack of box-office appeal, especially since the production had been widely expected to sell out. My belief is that the production's poor sales have been the result of the fact that this play is over-familiar to audiences.

When will Josh and I next go to the Guthrie? We have no idea. We may want to attend one of the "Major Barbara" performances later this season--if, and only if, my parents strongly recommend the production. Otherwise, we will not return until next season, if then (except to see the visit by The Royal Shakespeare Company next season).

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