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Liviu Ciulei, former Guthrie Theater art director, dies

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Liviu Ciulei
Romanian film and theater director Liviu Ciulei has died at age 88.
Photo courtesy Guthrie Theater

Romanian film and theater director Liviu Ciulei has died at age 88.

Internationally lauded for his work, he was artistic director at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis from 1980 to 1985.

While his shows sometimes puzzled local audiences, he is credited for bringing international recognition to the Guthrie Theater.

The Guthrie was already renown when Liviu Ciulei arrived in 1980, but he took things to a whole new level, said theater writer Dominic Papatola. 

"I can only imagine the 'get' that it must have felt like for Minneapolis to land someone like Liviu," Papatola said.

The Romanian director was famed for his theater and film work, having won the top prize at the Cannes film festival in 1965 for his film "The Forest of the Hanged."

Until that point, the Guthrie had drawn its artistic directors from British-influenced theaters, with a smattering of Americans. Ciulei brought very different eastern European sensibilities, which thrilled and sometimes perplexed, Papatola said.

"He seemed very exotic and just gave the theater a certain cache," Papatola recalls.

 And not just in the United States. David Hawley covered theater for the St. Paul Pioneer Press in the early 1980s.

"Critics showed up from all over the world for the grand opening," he said. "It was a big event."

Hawley said Ciulei brought some very different ideas to the Guthrie, which quickly appeared on stage.

"The old joke was that among Romanians tragedy is funny and funny is tragic," he laughed. "There was that kind of tendency in his stuff."

And Ciulei thought big, Hawley said.

"His first season, they did his own version of 'The Tempest,' " Hawley said, "The island was surrounded by a moat of blood."

There was a six-hour version of Peer Gynt, a Marriage of Figaro featuring shopping carts and roller skates. A steady flow of guest directors from Europe added productions to the mix.

Actor Sally Wingert first worked at the Guthrie with Ciulei.

"I felt very lucky just to be in the room with him," she said.

Wingert became fascinated by how Ciulei would study the material they were using.

"It was almost a precursor of the deconstructionism that came into vogue a little bit later," she said. "He was ever looking at the text and mining new and deeper interpretations."

The shows were remarkable. Ciulei originally trained as an architect, and he reveled in set design. He added a platform to the Guthrie's famed thrust stage, and remodeled the backstage to make it more adaptable.

David Hawley remembers attending a show and seeing the floor rising to reveal creatures from the underworld wearing pig snouts.

"You never went to a production at the Guthrie that he was doing that you didn't get surprised, that's for sure" he said.

He enjoyed it, Hawley said, but admits not all audiences agreed.

 "A lot of people thought that his stuff was just too out there, a little too unaccessible."

Ciulei resigned in 1985, and was succeeded by Garland Wright whom he had hired.

Ciulei died Monday in a hospital in Munich, Germany, where he lived.

Looking back, Ciulei was a pivotal figure at the Guthrie, Papatola said.   "I think, in a really important way, he shepherded the theater out of its adolescence and into its adulthood," he said.

And in doing that Papatola believes Liviu Ciulei built the artist platform upon which the Guthrie Theater has continued to grow.