A Great American Theater

by Max Carlson

Maybe I’m being a bit of a sentimentalist but I’m going to miss the old Guthrie. On May 7th this beloved theater closed its doors, finalizing its scheduled move from Vineland Place in Minneapolis to its new location on the banks of the Mississippi River. I wasn’t around in 1963 when the theater opened and I’ve only become a faithful attendee within the past ten years. Despite that short amount of time I feel as though I have a real kindred relationship with this old theater. It was the Guthrie that introduced me to masterworks like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, She Stoops to Conquer, You Can’t Take it With You, and A Doll’s House just to name a few. I cannot think of a better company to have revealed to me such theatrical gems for the first time. In my youth these impressionable productions shaped my understanding of theater. On the basis of consistent excellence I concluded that, basically, if you want to see it done right, see it at the Guthrie.

I’ve always enjoyed the Guthrie’s location too. Right on the border of vibrant Uptown and the wealthy Kenwood residential area, the theater overlooks the beautiful Walker Sculpture Garden. Over the years I’ve grown quite accustomed to the place and it grieves me to know that this sacred old building will soon be reduced to a mere parking lot for the Walker Art Center. I’m confident I’m not the only one who feels this way. True the company and management will essentially remain the same but to tear down a building with such history behind it is monstrous. In addition to being a beautiful landmark for the city of Minneapolis, it’s an important part of our past. It’s not just a meaningless structure; we all have emotions invested therein and destroying the old Guthrie is like severing a vital element of our lives—at least that’s how I feel.

So like it or not the Guthrie’s moving, thankfully to another nice location along the Mississippi River. As for the new building I have mixed feelings, at least in regards to the exterior. Though I haven’t seen the inside yet, I understand there will be three(!) theaters; the larger main stage for standard repertoire, a more intimate sized theater for smaller scale classics, and a studio theater for new developing works. The price tag is well over 100 million dollars.

The Guthrie fittingly closed their season on May 7th with Hamlet. It’s an appropriate gesture since it was Hamlet that opened the theater on the same date in 1963 with Sir Tyrone Guthrie as director. The 2006 production was done under the watchful eye of the theater’s current Artistic Director, Joe Dowling. Over the years I have enjoyed Dowling’s wry wit and sense for humor in even the most dramatic contexts. Joe Dowling became a memorable name for me after I saw what he did with two plays by Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters. I have come to recognize his style for lyrical staging and pacing that can hold any attention span. Hamlet, in my opinion, is no exception. I found myself surprised at the end of each act how quickly time flew by. One of the prominent decisions in this production was the casting of 24-year-old Santino Fontana as the young Danish prince. Not overplaying and offering a fresh breath to some of the most quoted Shakespeare there is, Fontana was superb. I thoroughly enjoyed this young actor’s lively interpretation. The majority of the cast (most of them Guthrie familiars) were at there finest even in the smallest of roles.

At the end of the performance there was something odd about the applause, the rhythm, the length, the volume, the enthusiasm. There was an unusual feeling in the air, as if audience members realized that they would never again set foot inside the old Guthrie Theater. The prolonged ovation was not reserved for that evening’s Hamlet only but served also as a heartfelt acknowledgment for the 43 years of splendid productions in that house.