Transitions at the Guthrie: A Review of Hamlet

“Tyrone Guthrie must be mad.” So whispered the English theater kingdom when, in 1963, the esteemed sweet prince of the London stage founded a theater in, of all places, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA! Guthrie’s decision eleven years earlier to become the first-ever artistic director of the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario had already called his sanity into question. That this boondocks in North America shared the name of Shakespeare’s birthplace prevented Guthrie’s benefactors from permanently committing him to a nunnery for the creatively insane. Forgive Canada. But Minneapolis? Worse than an “undiscovered country,” the Twin Cities were completely off of the “mortal coil” as a theater city. Fittingly, Guthrie chose Hamlet for his 1963 Minneapolis premiere. Like Shakespeare’s most famous protagonist, Guthrie’s madness blew “north-north-west.”

Hamlet feigned madness for a greater purpose. Likewise, theater historians now credit Guthrie’s apparent lapse of sanity as one of the most providential actions of the modern era. The Guthrie Theater paved the way for the regional theater movement, a flourish of activity which proved that excellent and professional theater could thrive in the United States outside of New York City. Sister theatres soon sprang up in Dallas, Denver, Seattle, and San Francisco. Hamlet with SkullForty-three years later, Hamlet once again treads the Minneapolis boards. In a poetic turn, this production of arguably the world’s greatest playwright’s greatest play serves as the final show staged in the iconic thrust theater that bears Guthrie’s name. With future seasons planned for a new multi-million dollar theater complex near the city’s Mississippi Riverfront, this review serves as an examination of the Guthrie Theatre’s current production ofHamlet, both as a piece of theater and as a piece of theater history.

The unequaled cultural resonance ofHamlet burdens every new production. For example, how can an actor perform “To be or not to be” without begging comparison to the cavalcade of obscenely talented predecessors? Similarly, the plethora of great quotations in the play almost gets in the way, with every scene sounding like recitation from Bartlett’s. To his credit, director Joe Dowling guides his production through the minefields of familiarity by coaching his actors to deliver their lines not as sacred cows but as untailored conversations. “What a rogue and peasant slave am I” glides across the stage with the same ease as more obscure lines. Virtually every moment of the three-hour production is clear and understandable. While not flashy, Dowling has crafted an accessible and even-handed rendition.

This very accessibility may also account for the production’s overall lack of excitement. Dowling’s conservative approach produces no new revelations. Even the anachronistic 1940s setting, while ably rendered in Paul Tazewell’s charming costume design and Richard Hoover’s stately scene design, says little about Hamlet’s predicament and even less about war-torn Europe. The production as a whole fails to map images that live long in memory. The show is not dull, it’s just not particularly daring. It offers clarity at the price of risktaking.

With few bold statements in play, the most intriguing feature of the production comes from observing a very young actor successfully portray a very old soul. A recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, twenty-three year old Santino Fontana proves worthy of his daunting assignment. Fontana plays Hamlet as a playful, physical, and nerdy bookworm–his affection for “words, words, words” illustrated through the lovely choice of having him scribble his thoughts in a tattered journal. Fontana mines the humor of the role effectively. For example, his playful exchanges with Polonius, expertly played by veteran actor Peter Michael Goetz, invite the audience to participate in the teasing. Fontana occasionally falls short of conveying Hamlet’s more tragic tones; such gravitas comes with age. In the meantime, this young actor shows the chops to credibly stand beside the impressive list of luminaries who have undertaken the role before him.

Dowling’s 2006 Hamlet will not encourage a revolution in the American theatre. Ironically, it’s too safe and tired for that. But this Hamlet lives as the fruit of a tree planted long ago. As the Guthrie Theater moves into a new home, the last word in this grand old space symbolizes the beauty that may flourish if talented artists resist comfortable career paths and ignore established conventions. Moreover, this historic event reminds us how institutions, if supported, can positively impact the culture, yielding beauty and truth while modeling the impossible.

This current production of Hamlet evokes more ghosts than the ethereal presence of Old Hamlet. As I sat in the first row with my toes touching the base of the famous thrust stage, I smelled the sweat, saw the blood, and felt the faith of fortythree years of productions. More memorable, lasting, and significant than the competent if uninspired production that unfolded before me, these kindly specters from the past will, God willing, continue to haunt the American theater scene for generations to come.

May we all succumb to the madness.

Robert Hubbard is an associate professor of theater and speech at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.