The Miller’s Tale

Amy Danielson

After spending an entire week crammed into tiny spaces to watch Fringe Festival artists present brief (albeit alluring) shows with tight budgets, I found it peculiar to dress-up, get lost in a massive crowd, and find my seat in the cathedral-like Guthrie Theater. I would be sitting down to a two act production, twice as long as anything at the Fringe ñ in fact, the world premier of Resurrection Blues, the newest work by Arthur Miller, no less.

As with all Guthrie productions, this would be one reflecting the grandness of the theater, including technologically enhanced stage tricks and props, expensive out-of-town actors, and an impressive opening-night reception spread. Ticket holders pay a pretty penny for their seats ($46 for the better seats, whereas the best seats at the Fringe cost a mere $10), and therefore audiences are justified in expecting the best that Twin Cities theater has to offer. So are they getting what they pay for?

If they desire prestige, then absolutely ñ there is no more august an American playwright than Miller, and this production is helmed by David Esbjornson, a highly regarded director. But no guarantee of great theater subsists within the Guthrie’s walls. This became more evident than ever as I compared Resurrection Blues to my week of Fringing. Certainly, this production of Miller’s farce has wonderful moments, but I would argue that most of this success is due to Miller’s arch and funny script. The acting leaves much to be desired, particularly as most of the play’s roles are miscast. The cast never finds an even tone ñ some, such as David Chandler as an unctuous, amoral television producer, play the script for broad comedy, while other, such as the craggy and bitter former revolutionary played by Wendy vanden Heuvel, seem to be acting out an enormous tragedy. Longtime Guthrie favorite Laila Robins, in the meanwhile, never finds a specific character at all in her portrayal of an ambivalent television director. She merely seems baffled. By contrast, many of the Fringe shows I saw bristled with a raw, enthusiastic energy.

Perhaps I just expect too much from the Guthrie, but I can’t help but wonder how Resurrection Blues would have turned out at the Fringe. Look at the premise: A Latin American dictator (a loutish John Bedford Lloyd) wants to bring $25 million to his country by granting an American advertising agency the rights to televise a revolutionary’s crucifixion. Now, suppose this revolutionary might be the Messiah himself. While the play’s theme, privatizing executions, is a serious one, it inspires in Miller a cynical, exceedingly black humor. In one scene, Miller has the dictator speculate on the benefit of great wealth: “Maybe we could have our own airline and send our prostitutes to the dentist.”

In a 1992 essay, Miller proposed selling tickets to watch prisoners get executed in an electric chair on the second base at Shea Stadium. Miller’s script expands on this theme, raging against the increasing commercialization of developing Third World countries, in which dictators make backroom deals with cocaine-growing revolutionaries on land owned by corporate magnates. This is unusually weighty subject matter for local comedians such as the Scrimshaw brothers or Ari Hoptman, but I could see them tackling it, and with a savagery that the Guthrie doesn’t dare.

Miller, long one of our most incisive playwrights, may have developed some profound psychic abilities in his old age. Might we find ourselves, after enjoying an episode of the Simpson‘s on Fox, witnessing a new breed of reality shows? Is it so farfetched to imagine American networks peddling a show called Crucifixion Island? Imagine, seven strangers, convicted of malicious crimes, picked to die on a cross. Who will die first? Will they compete in physical stunts for their survival, or will the viewers decide their fate based on their ability to entertain us? Leave it to the rich and powerful to parlay the death of an inmate. And leave it to the Fringe Festival to satirize this trend with fearless, frightening theater. We can’t count on the Guthrie to do it for us.

 

Resurrection Blues plays at the Guthrie Theater through September 8, (612) 377-2224.