Guthrie Theater Boasts Two Very Different Plays at Once: 'Clybourne Park' and 'Pride & Prejudice'

Guthrie Theater - Clybourne Park

There are two big shows happening at the Guthrie right now. On the McGuire Proscenium stage we have Clybourne Park, a new play by Bruce Norris. On the Wurtele Thrust stage we have a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. Guthrie tickets are notoriously pricy. So which one should you see? I'd recommend Clybourne Park. This smart, complex play is partially a response to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic, A Raisin in the Sun. Pride and Prejudice, a veritable romp through English society, can most charitably be described as a staged romantic comedy. The Sunday evening I attended the Guthrie’s Pride and Prejudice, three generations of women sat behind me, and it sounded like all of them knew the story backwards and forwards. “It’s nice,” I overheard the young teen girl say to her mother and grandmother, “You don’t have to focus on the words at all to know what’s going on.” This is certainly true of Joe Dowling’s production in the Wurtele Thrust, which takes Jane Austen’s subtlety and wit and explodes it into a nearly farcical rom-com.

Pride & Prejudice - Guthrie

The moments of farce are some of the most enjoyable: Suzanne Warmanen carries the show as Mrs. Bennet, the fabulously self-centered and loud-mouthed mother of the show's heroine Elizabeth. Her humor never gets old -- but the jokes directed at Mrs. Bennet by her husband and the other male characters get old in a heartbeat. Both Warmanen and Kris L. Nelson, who plays the suitor-from-hell, Mr. Collins, with delicious creepiness, are pushing their physicality to the point of farce. It’s great, but it makes you wish either the rest of the company got on their level or the whole thing was toned down a bit. You know, like Jane Austen’s writing. Peter Thomson does an excellent deadpan (but secretly kind) father and Sally Wingert rules the stage as the delightfully prudish and evil Mrs. Gardiner. Ashley Rose Montondo is a sweet and sassy Elizabeth who is perhaps not as witty or thoughtful as she could be. Her performance verges on overly sarcastic, perhaps in an effort to find something identifiably modern in what feels like a sea of young women playing stupid, hysterical girls. All of them, (notably Aeysha Kinnunen as the youngest and least well-behaved sister) are clearly talented actors who were unfortunately directed to scream and dance and have their pretty mouths hanging open all the time. In fact, there is something uncharitable about the treatment of almost all the female characters in this production. Jane Austen’s writing is about romance, but it’s also intensely preoccupied with the socioeconomic situation that women of her time found themselves in and how they navigated a world with few options. Rather than take them seriously, this production plays these economic anxieties off as hysteria for comedic effect. Financially, the show is a huge success -- it’s nearly, or entirely sold out every night -- there’s a particular kind of energy in the Wurtele Thrust when you can count less than 7 empty seats in a theater of 1,100. It also seems to be widening the Guthrie’s fan base: the usual patrons, dressed down, vaguely intellectual looking, and white haired, are joined by brightly dressed fan-girls of all ages.

Pride & Prejudice - 2013 - Guthrie

The audience, in fact, may have been the most fun part of the show. They applauded actress Sally Wingert’s every move, they practically hissed at the villainous Mr. Collins, and they cheered (oh how they cheered) when Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy first (and FINALLY) kiss. At that moment, when one woman actually squealed “yay!” so loudly that it was audible to (and delighted) the rest of the audience, I became fully aware that I was attending a live action "chick flick." The Guthrie is notorious for letting their budget and spectacle capabilities take over the storytelling, instead of getting out of its way. This set, complete with circling platforms and columns, was appropriately grand, a little dizzying, and only somewhat distracting. The period costumes, tea trays, pianos, and musical interludes are all detailed and lush, ornate even, but eventually get boring. There was one very telling moment of spectacle. It comes in the beginning of the second act, upon Elizabeth’s arrival at Pemberley Manor. Suddenly, about 12 gigantic paintings fly in on wires. It’s the usual fare: a flattering portrait of Mr. Darcy that makes Elizabeth realize she might be into him, other noble white men and the obligatory portraits of the grounds, the horses, and a church. The grandeur of it is inescapable, an imaginary wall the height of the thrust has suddenly materialized, but I wonder how roughly six minutes with this decor could be worth the money it cost them (a sum that, per the Guthrie’s privacy policies, remains unpublicized). But whatever the expense, based on the full house, it looks like it was worth it. The audience ate it up with a huge laugh and a round of applause, and with a budget that big and a reaction like that, why take theatrical risks? Perhaps the Guthrie, in charging so much for tickets, feels obligated to quite literally show their patrons where the money went. More likely, however, they know what works: show them the money, have a couple of great comedic actors, and direct the women to be shallow and unchallenging. But maybe I’m underestimating the Guthrie. Perhaps there is a more subtle, almost Brechtian aspect of the show that most are missing -- Joe Dowling’s lavish, profit driven, and shallow production actually has a lot in common with the marriage concerns of Jane Austen’s time: rarely about love or passion, generally concerned with the finances. But unlike Jane Austen’s young heroine, the problem with the Guthrie seems to be an excess, rather than a lack of funds. And as a result, some of the work is getting cheap.

Clybourne Park - 2013 - Guthrie Theater

(But) the work in Clybourne Park almost makes up for it. Clybourne Park’s first act is in 1959, as an all white neighborhood dreads the arrival of its first “negro” family (which, is implied, is the Younger family from A Raisin in the Sun). The second act, set in 2009, sees the neighborhood, now entirely black, concerned with protecting the community they have built as a new white family arrives. The two acts are variations on a theme of people stuck in a room together, and tense conversations develop as they dance around (or blunder) difficult topics including race, class, gender, disability, mental illness, war and the value of real estate. In the first act, the conflict unfolds as neighbors casually “drop by” to dissuade middle-aged Russ and Bev from selling their house to a black family, for the "sake" of the neighborhood. Most of the racism is couched in language about “different tastes” and styles of living (all of which, the white characters fail to realize, are economically dependent). The awkward political dance, in which neighbor Karl (the antagonist of A Raisin in the Sun) tries to advocate what amounts to segregation, is full of cringe worthy moments. The script attacks them with satiric gusto, well-deserving of the laughs it gets. The second act opens with a Rihanna song and the same house transformed by 50 years of aging (a gorgeous set change by designer Rachel Hauk). It is 2009, so the conversations between black residents of the neighborhood, real estate agents, and the white family moving in begins more jovial and respectful (we live in a post-racial society, after all), but racial and class tensions still run deep.

Clybourne Park - Guthrie - 2013

At the climax of the play, the characters come close to having an honest discussion about race -- they really try. The result is hilarious and ultimately pessimistic. I would argue that at best, they manage to have a conversation about whether their conversation is about race, a revelation that resonates deeply within our current political climate. Perhaps the most frank discussion of race comes in the form of a series of politically incorrect jokes (teaser: how are white women like tampons?) that the characters first grudgingly relate and eventually hurl at one another. There is no weak link in this cast -- they nail the timing of a biting and witty script. Like the set, they undergo a marvelous transformation between acts, yet letting the themes bleed through. There are several lines expressed by white characters in the first act that are repeated by black characters in the second, and vice versa. The script is complex and nuanced, and Director Lisa Peterson’s simple, striking staging brings it to life without overcomplicating it. She is a master of letting us see the power dynamics between characters. The direction trusts the actors and the smartness of the script to keep the audience engaged, and rightly so -- each scene is full of surprises: secret motives and withheld truths abound, all underscored by a general inability to face things (race) head on. This production faces the play head on, and as a result the production is fearless and full of depth. So while Pride & Prejudice boasts much more production value, Clybourne Park is definitely the better ticket, the show most deserving of the high price of admission. All images courtesy of: Guthrie Theater

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