The Guthrie Theater announced its 2017-18 season today. It positions beloved classics such as Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" alongside some more pointed political works.
"We have to be a lot of things to a lot of people here at the Guthrie, and so we're really looking for a mix of plays," said Artistic Director Joseph Haj.
As a regional theater with 2,000 seats to fill, the Guthrie has to offer beautifully crafted entertainment. But there also must be room for art that responds to the events of our time.
The seemingly disparate choices contain some interesting, and deliberate, pairings.
This fall, the Guthrie will stage Lillian Hellman's "Watch on the Rhine." The show deals with the rise of fascism on American soil at the start of World War II, but Haj says it feels startlingly relevant today.
"There's a line in the play that says something like, 'We don't send people back — we're Americans. That's not what we do.' And that line was written in 1941," Haj said. "The reason we do the classics is not to look at plays or stories under glass; it's to understand that many of these classic texts have absolute resonances to our current times."
The Guthrie follows "Watch on the Rhine" with Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit," which at first might seem like a non sequitur. But Haj explained that Noel Coward, a contemporary of Hellman, wrote the play at the onset of World War II.
"Noel Coward wrote 'Blithe Spirit' as a response to the German bombing of London," Haj said. "His apartment was badly damaged. And he set out to write a play that would be a diversion to his countrymen at a really, really difficult time."
Haj said "Blithe Spirit" and "Watch on the Rhine" are both legitimate responses to the same political moment, "one squaring to the political timbre of the time and another one writing an entertainment — something to allow us to step away from the insanity of the world for just a moment."
The Guthrie presents another interesting pairing later in the season. A staging of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" marks the 50th anniversary of the acclaimed film starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Set in 1967, it tackles racial prejudice among the proudly liberal just as interracial marriage was legalized.
That show, on the Guthrie's thrust stage, will briefly overlap with a brand-new play on the proscenium stage — "Familiar," by Macalester alum Danai Gurira. Set in Minnesota, "Familiar" follows a Zimbabwean-American family, who, on the eve of a daughter's wedding to a white guy from Minnetonka, are forced to reconcile their conflicting feelings about the value of cultural traditions.
"Those two plays really explore a lot of the same ground, and in 'Familiar' really test the idea of all that is good and all that is costly about cultural assimilation," Haj said.
Other plays in the coming season include Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," Kia Corthron's "An Enemy of the People," and Matthew Lopez' "The Legend of Georgia McBride."
"We're really looking for a season that coheres," Haj said. "Plays that speak to one another across the season in interesting ways, but also a truly eclectic mix where everyone in our community can find themselves in our work."
Due to licensing agreements, two remaining productions in the coming season won't be announced until April 17. The Guthrie's Level Nine play series, which takes place in the Dowling Studio, will be announced this spring.