Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Sparks fly at the History Theatre's Tyrone and Ralph

Also see Ed's reviews of The Chairs, Killer Joe and Broadway's Legendary Ladies

Sir Tyrone Guthrie is the sun around which he expects everyone to orbit in paths obedient to his will; but Guthrie's expectation meets an opposing gravitational field in Ralph Rapson, the quiet local architect who has been selected to build the Great Man's new regional theater in Minneapolis. Jeffrey Hatcher's engaging new play, Tyrone and Ralph, at the History Theatre in St. Paul, flashes bright, as two steel wills lock, parry and thrust.

Set between 1959 and the Guthrie's opening in 1963, the play feeds on two very different men's arguments about the design of the Guthrie Theater, a theater that launched the regional theater movement in the US and bestowed upon the Twin Cities our rich thespian tradition. Their conflict drives the play and is deepened further by issues of class, a brilliant director's failing career and a rising architect's career, yet to be fully realized.

Veteran Twin Cities actor Steve Hendrickson nails the patrician Sir Tyrone Guthrie. He strides on stage, tall and flamboyant, a commanding presence whose whole being is theatrical. Within minutes, Guthrie designates quiet Rapson, played pitch-perfect by Mark Benninghofen, the job of enacting multiple other roles, as he explains to the audience how he launched his idea of a theater dedicated to good plays, not to Broadway profits. Both men are conscious of the audience and address them directly, engaging members in their opponent's intransigence.

At first, I wondered where the play would find its fire, since the match-up seemed lopsided, with Guthrie, an internationally renowned director who is accustomed to shaping the world to meet his ambitions, and Rapson, the polite, Midwestern architect. Guthrie bullies and condescends from on high to Rapson, but trust playwright Hatcher's dramatic instincts and the iron within the understated architect.

They argue over types of stages and seats, Guthrie never missing a chance to diminish Rapson. The architect proposes roomy, colorful seats. The director demands plain, hard seats that will keep patrons uncomfortable and alert. He shows Rapson a slide of the amphitheatre at Epidaurus, with its tiers of limestone benches. "Bad for the coccyx," Guthrie declares, "good for the acoustics." He believes he has the matter settled. After a particularly acid altercation, Rapson mutters dryly to the Anglo Irishman's retreating back, "You go back to your estate at Annaghmakerrig, and I'll go back to mine on Cedar Avenue."

Guthrie knows full well what he wants this troublesome architect to design, and he sets a trap for Rapson. He carts all the funders from Minneapolis to his Stratford Festival Theatre in Canada and confronts the architect. In a marvelous moment of precision timing, Rapson delivers a cut, striking Guthrie's Achilles heel, and the Great Man reels back, as though pierced by a rapier.

Director Ron Peluso has Hendrickson embrace Guthrie's flamboyance to the fullest, whether he's reeling from Rapson's first true hit, or sarcastically pacing out Rapson's proposed dimensions of the future stage, while reciting from Shakespeare's Richard III in Central Park. The over-playing works dramatically, feeding the contrasts between two considerable intellects.

Happily, the intimate, 600-seat History Theatre is a Rapson design. Set designer Erik E. Paulson has a blown-up blueprint of the Guthrie Theater painted on its gentle thrust-stage floor, and a backdrop of oblongs and squares, pierced with round-edged cut-outs, reflects Rapson's original façade of the Guthrie and allows for the projection of Cory McLeod's archival video.

The video projections and the familiar trumpet call for the audience to find their seats in C. Andrew Mayer's sound design flooded me with nostalgia for Rapson's now demolished, light-filled theater.

For anyone interested in American theater, Tyrone and Ralph is a must; for those who simply enjoy good theater, it's a treat.

Tyrone and Ralph October 2 - November 9, 2008.Thursdays 10:00 a.m. & 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays 7:30 p.m., Sundays, 2:00 p.m. Tickets $22 - $30. Call 651- 292-4323, or visit History Theatre, 30, East 10th Street, St. Paul.

- Elizabeth Weir

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