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Guthrie Theater’s 2017-18 season speaks to our time, in new plays and old

Photo by Keri Pickett
Guthrie artistic director Joe Haj

Two plays by black women playwrights, one a world premiere. The other is by a playwright-actor who also has a starring role in television’s “The Walking Dead” (and hasn’t been killed off … yet). A comedy about an Elvis impersonator turned drag queen. A play based on a screenplay, written by a former August Wilson collaborator. Does this sound like a Guthrie season? What if we add a Shakespeare, a Noël Coward and “A Christmas Carol”?

The Guthrie’s 2017-18 mainstage season, announced Thursday by artistic director Joe Haj, is a blend of old and new, classic and contemporary, because “the Guthrie necessarily has to be a lot of things to a lot of people,” Haj said in an interview. “We can’t be just classics, or comedy, or musicals.”

Eight of 10 productions were announced. We won’t know about the other two until April 17. According to the press release, they are “a new play by a celebrated contemporary female playwright and one of the most ambitious musicals in Guthrie history.”

Looking over the season, what immediately stands out is how sharply these eight plays, arguably including “A Christmas Carol,” speak to our current moment. When asked, “Was that your intent?” Haj replied, “Not explicitly.” Programming for the season began long before the November elections, and even longer before Feb. 17, when Donald Trump called the press “the enemy of the people.” And yet, a new version of Ibsen’s “The Enemy of the People” is on the season. Cue the “Twilight Zone” theme.

Here’s what the season looks like so far. Half the plays are on the thrust stage and half are on the proscenium stage.

Sept. 9-Oct. 28: “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare. Haj will open the season with this play because he has always wanted to direct it and the Guthrie has produced it just twice before. “Of all of Shakespeare’s plays,” Haj said, “none is more affecting and attractive to young people than ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ because it is written about their concerns.” Viewed through the prism of our time, this 410-year-old play is also about young people inheriting the hatreds of their parents. “That divide ends up destroying them, because it’s greater than they can possibly bridge,” Haj said. “That feels as current as anything else in our world to me.”

Sept. 30-Nov. 5: “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman. Who knew, but the Guthrie “has never, ever produced Lillian Hellman,” Haj said. Bringing a Hellman play here was one of his early goals. “Watch on the Rhine,” which made its debut in 1941, months before the U.S. entered WWII, is a play about the rise of fascism in Germany and the need to take a stand in a changing world.

Nov. 14-Dec. 30: “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, adapted by Crispin Whittell. True, there’s redemption, generosity, forgiveness and Fezziwig’s party. There’s also the suffering of the poor and super-rich Scrooge’s cruelty and greed.

Nov. 25-Jan. 14, 2018: “Blithe Spirit” by Noël Coward. This frothy comedy debuted in the same year as Hellman’s “Watch on the Rhine.” Coward wrote it soon after his London apartment was damaged in a bombing. “He decided to write a diversion, an entertainment, an escapist piece for his countrymen who were being so brutalized,” Haj said. “So you have two playwrights writing in the same moment, each responding to the anxieties of the moment, but one writing squarely into the politics of it and the other writing an entertainment.”

March 10-April 14: “Familiar” by Danai Gurira. Zimbabwean American Gurira is a Macalester graduate currently starring as the sword-wielding Michonne in “The Walking Dead.” Set during a Minnesota winter, “Familiar” is a kind of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” but viewed from the opposite direction. The successful lawyer daughter of an assimilated Zimbabwean family is marrying a white man from Minnetonka. An aunt from Zimbabwe flies in and cultures clash.

April 7-May 27: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” by Todd Kreidler, based on the screenplay by William Rose. The story is 50 years old, but racial tension is still a problem in America. Kreidler was August Wilson’s dramaturg in the playwright’s final years.

April 28-June 3: “An Enemy of the People” by Kia Corthron, based on the play by Henrik Ibsen. This will be the world premiere of an African American woman’s 21st-century take on an 19th-century classic by a white Norwegian man. Basically, it’s a play about the environment and a whistleblower who’s silenced and labeled an enemy of the people. “It couldn’t be more of the moment,” Haj said.

July 14-Aug. 26: “The Legend of Georgia McBride” by Matthew Lopez. Lopez’s camp comedy deals with themes of identity and transformation as a straight white man goes from King to drag queen. Lopez also wrote “The Whipping Man,” seen at the Penumbra in 2009 and earlier this year at the Minnesota Jewish Theater. This will be the first production of a Lopez work at the Guthrie. (The same goes for Gurira, Kreidler and Corthron.)

Haj pointed out what he calls “conversations” among plays in the new season. There’s a dance going on between “Watch on the Rhine” and “Blithe Spirit,” both dating from the same time but totally different. And between “Familiar” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” two plays about interracial marriage a half-century apart.

For those who wonder “Why Shakespeare? Why Ibsen?” he made a case for classic plays.

“The thrill for me – the ‘Wow!’ – is you can hardly go anywhere without finding that Shakespeare has been there first,” Haj said. “The things coming up today, we think they’re brand-new and the world has never seen them, but there’s Lillian Hellman, writing about them in 1941, and Henrik Ibsen writing in 1988, and Shakespeare writing 410 years ago. The Greeks were writing about them 2,500 years ago.

“Those of us who love classic plays love them not as museum pieces, but for what they have to say about where we stand right now. Catastrophe is not brand-new. We’ve seen it, we can survive it. We can learn something from those who have trafficked through this space before.”

Subscriptions to the Guthrie’s 2017-18 season go on sale May 19. Single tickets will be available on a staggered scheduling beginning July 17. FMI.

The picks

Starts tonight (Friday, March 3) at the Southern: Savage Umbrella: “The Awakening.” The story of one woman’s struggle to become herself, adapted from Kate Chopin’s famous and influential feminist novel, first published in 1899. This is a remount of an acclaimed 2010 production, with a cast of 16. FMI and tickets ($20 advance/$24 door; ARTshare members free). Ends March 18.

Tonight at Orchestra Hall: “Inside the Classics: Bartók’s Farewell.” Conductor Sarah Hicks and host (and violist) Sam Bergman lead a casual night of music spotlighting Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, one of the masterworks of the 20th century. Hicks and Bergman start by explaining and demonstrating Hungarian musical ideas that influenced Bartók and other European composers. After intermission, the full orchestra returns for a complete performance of the concerto. 8 p.m. FMI and tickets ($30/$20/$12). Come early for a pre-concert happy hour from 6-7:50.

Monday in the Bryant Lake Bowl Theater: The Theater of Public Policy: “To Serve and Reflect.” T2P2’s Spring 2017 season begins with Minneapolis Chief of Police Janee Harteau in the hot seat. First comes a lively conversation with Harteau, which inspires T2P2’s team of improvisers, who create comedy sketches based on the interview. Then comes an audience Q&A (what would you like to ask our police chief?) and a final round of improv. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s never disrespectful and you will learn something. Doors at 6 p.m., show at 7. FMI and tickets ($12 advance/$15 door). MinnPost is a media sponsor.

Tuesday at the c (the M): Selected Reading from “A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota.” A reading and conversation among poet Sun Yung Shin, Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria and Diane Wilson, all contributors to the provocative and important anthology published last year by the Minnesota Historical Society. With McNally Smith’s Contemporary Vocal Ensemble. 7 p.m. Free and open to the public.

Courtesy of the Walker Art Center
Identity for RISD Museum, Rob Giampietro for Project Projects, 2012

Tuesday at the Walker: Insights: Rob Giampietro (Google Design). Co-presented by the Walker and AIGA Minnesota, the annual Insights Design Lecture Series begins with a talk (with lots of examples) by designer and writer Giampietro, creative lead and design manager for Google Design in New York. His mission: to infuse an appreciation for design into Google’s culture and the whole universe. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($24). Sold out; call the box office (612-375-7600) for waitlist information. Coming up: Andy Rementer, illustrator and painter (March 14), Clara Balaguer & Kristian Henson (Office of Culture and Design/Hardworking Goodlooking) (March 21), Richard Turley, Wieden + Kennedy (March 28).

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