In 1963, when Tyrone Guthrie produced his first season at the new Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the States did not have much in the way of regional theater. In a country whose two most famous actors are, respectively, a President and a presidential assassin, Ronald Reagan and John Wilkes Booth—two actors who, in other words, became famous for something other than their art—it seems inevitable that a British director would found what is one of our premier theaters. (At least we are not alone. Guthrie founded Canada’s de facto national theater, the Stratford Festival Theater in London, Ontario, as well.)

It was 25 years ago last May that the new Guthrie opened with Hamlet, and its 25th season these past nine months included a production of Hamlet as well, directed by Artistic Director Garland Wright. Hamlet is such a difficult play not only because of the language, and the length, but because its main character, the man who must carry the show, is not always attractive. Wright purposefully chose to play Hamlet very young, choosing the American actor Zjelko Ivanek for the lead. Ivanek is in his early 30’s but is slight enough to pass for a teenager. It is a sound concept, but Ivanek was not up to bringing it off. There needs to be something appealing about Hamlet, an air that offsets his sometimes petty rage, or a handsomeness at least, to help make up for the petulance that is so often his outlet for grief This version of the play had some strengths—notably the play within the play, which was well done as a sort of Noh drama—but a bandy-legged Hamlet, a very weak Gertrude, and an overly naive Ophelia (a common mistake) undermined some better characterizations, most notably Laertes (played by Curzon Dobell, whose work with Stratford director Robin Phillips shows).

But a director deserves acknowledgment for what he tries to do as well as for what he achieves. Wright saw Hamlet as very young and to a great extent overwhelmed by events; in fact the most interesting thing Wright had to say about his reading of the play touched on just this point. He had thought, going into it, that the main trouble he was going to have with Hamlet was that “it’s a deeply introspective play and we’re not living in a society that’s introspective. So I wasn’t sure it would speak loudly enough. But oddly enough, as we worked I found Hamlet is not as introspective as I’d assumed. Reading it on the page you think it’s a play about thinking in the face of acting or doing, and substituting that for doing. As a matter of fact, Hamlet is not about postponing action so much as there is so much else on Hamlet‘s mind. There’s a lot going on for a young person, living with a crisis day to day.”

Lucian Pintilie’s version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck was stronger as a performance, primarily because of Rebecca Ellens as Hedvig and Richard Ooms as Old Ekdal, both of whom were wonderful (Wright singled out Ooms’ performance as one of the season’s breakthroughs, but most of the cast was quite good, including Christopher McCann as Gregers Werle, Keith Jochim as Relling, and Charles Seibert—from television’s Trapper John, M.D.—as Hjalmar Ekdal). Pintilie brought out all the humor in the play, which is extremely funny in parts, especially in the final scene, leading up to Hedvig’s self-sacrificial suicide. (Since Pintilie had previously directed this play, and Miss Ellens, at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, the Guthrie cannot quite claim this as its own production.)

But some of the best news out of the Guthrie is its plans for development. Wright is trying to knead more money into the company, hiring voice coach Elizabeth Smith (the Guthrie is larger than most Broadway houses and unmiked) and raising the artists’ salaries. In 1987 he instituted the Guthrie Lab, essentially a workshop for the actors and directors. The fundraising goal for the next few years is $25 million, and that’s for an endowment fund; Wright admits it’s a lot, “revolutionary,” as he puts it, “in a field that’s never thought of itself as on an equal scale with museums and orchestras.” He’s making quite a good point: no one would be surprised by such a number at, say, the Metropolitan Opera in New York. “Actors,” Wright says, “have historically been gypsies, and most cultures have not only allowed that but encouraged that. Ultimately it has an effect on how good we find ourselves being.” That the Guthrie’s executive director, Edward A. Martenson, formerly ran the theater program at NEA can only help, though one of the things the Guthrie should be proudest of is the amount of local support: 80 percent of the summer audience and 90 percent of the winter are local people from the twin cities, and over 90 percent of those who give money to support the Guthrie are likewise local.

The season closes this month with Howard Brenton and David Hare’s drama à clef Pravda, a British play based on the life of Rupert Murdoch, rounding out a season that included The Glass Menagerie, The Imaginary Invalid, a new adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (none of which, unfortunately, I saw). Next year’s season starts in June. As of our press date half the fundraising goal has been met in pledges, a good sign; perhaps an even better sign is what Wright said when asked if he missed New York. He lived and worked very happily there, he says, on and off-Broadway, for 17 years. But he does not miss it: “Not for one second.” Our best hope for any strong regional theater is in just that kind of rancorless prejudice.