Dowling reveals big surprise in new Guthrie season

The announcement of a new season at the Guthrie Theater is always treated—by the press as well as the theater—as akin to a State of the Union address, with both great anticipation and formality. This year, however, the theater’s 2009-2010 season was announced this afternoon not with a typical press conference or any press conference at all. Rather, the famous thrust-stage theater was filled with invited guests in addition to local media—Guthrie staff and volunteers, and ranks of University of Minnesota BFA students, with whom the Guthrie collaborates as part of their training. It was a familial atmosphere, whoops and hollers rising from the crowd when the inclusion of particularly favorite plays or actors was announced. It was the Fireside Chat of season announcements.

Artistic Director Joe Dowling struck the defiant tone right away: “There will be no rowing back of our ambitions in this time,” he said. Despite financial cutbacks, the Guthrie will be keeping new shows spinning through all three theaters all year.

Just how it would do that quickly became apparent. The season opens in July not with a live show but a filmed presentation, of the National Theatre of Great Britain’s highly anticipated production of Phèdre, starring Helen Mirren. Then a musical revue of sorts—Ella, weaving together the life and music of Ella Fitzgerald—though given playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s way with words and Ella’s way with a tune, this is more akin to the fantastic experience that Dinah proved to be, starring Regina Marie Williams a few years back at the Ordway. Of course, lighter, musical fare in the summer is not unexpected.

Then the real surprises begin. The first Thrust Stage show of the season, in September, is The Importance of Being Earnest—what Dowling called “perhaps the best comedy ever writtten.” It’s the first of four shows that Dowling himself will direct next season—twice as many as this season and one more than the three he’s taken on in typical years.

Call it the Joe Show: Dowling will also be taking on Macbeth, She Stoops to Conquer, and Faith Healer—part of a large raft of plays next season from across the pond. Faith Healer, by Ireland’s reigning playwright and Dowling’s good friend, Brian Friel, stands to be a landmark Guthrie show. In announcing the cast, Dowling, who has directed Friel’s plays since 1977, received shouts of approval for casting Guthrie favorites Sally Wingert and Raye Birk (who will be leaving his Scrooge role to take on the play). Then he said, “You’re wondering, ‘Who will play the faith healer?'” And he paused for effect.

“I will,” said Dowling. That’s right, Joe Dowling, now in his 14th season leading the Guthrie, will be taking the stage himself. Considering no readily available bio of Dowling recounts his acting past, Dowling perhaps felt the need to assure everyone that he has in fact acted in the past and felt it was time to “flex those muscles again.” Quoting his countryman Oscar Wilde, he said, “I can resist anything but temptation.” Given the recent chatter about Dowling’s salary, it seems there will be little question he’ll earn it this year.

The rest of the season is filled out with a mix of favorites and unique choices: A Streetcar Named Desire, but also Dollhouse, a modern, feminist take on Ibsen’s similarly titled play. And Peter Rothstein returns to direct, in a show that indirectly taps his operatic chops: M. Butterfly, the Broadway play about a Peking opera star.

The Dowling Studio, given over to local troupes, will feature some very deserving folks, more under the radar than recent companies: Interact Theater, a high-quality company of disabled actors, stages Kevin Kling’s “Northern Lights/Southern Cross: Tales from the Other Side of the World” (also starring Kling) and gives the highly regarded director/performer Jon Ferguson a huge boost by staging his new show Super Monkey.

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