A friend contends that within five minutes of any theatrical production you can always tell what kind of an experience you are going to have. I can’t argue with his contention. Within five minutes of watching the Guthrie Theater’s production of The Master Butchers Singing Club I knew I was in for a very long night at the theater.
From the start, the story didn’t capture my imagination. The acting didn’t keep my attention. The occasional insertion of a song did nothing to buoy any enthusiasm for this world premiere. And the sets didn’t transport me to the plains of North Dakota. No aspect of this production was able to take me out of my head. Scene after scene, as the play built to its obvious denouement, I sat in my seat with questions racing through my mind faster than the action unfolding before me.
Why did the Guthrie choose this particular book by Louise Erdrich to adapt for the stage? What did Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Marsha Norman, see in the material that made her want to bring the characters to life? What attracted international director, Francesca Zambello, to return to the Guthrie to stage this most regional of stories?
Perhaps my disappointment in The Master Butchers Singing Club was exacerbated by the fact that the Saturday before I had spent the entire day at the Guthrie watching the trilogy of plays, The Great Game: Afghanistan. Unlike The Master Butchers Singing Club, The Great Game was not a production of the Guthrie Theater. It was produced by London’s Tricycle Theater which the Guthrie’s Joe Dowling has called “Arguably the most important political theater in Great Britain...”
Credit for this challenging, powerful, epic theatrical event goes to the Tricycle Theater for commissioning 12 writers to enlighten audiences on the history, culture and struggles in Afghanistan from 1842 right up to the present. While the credit for the production goes to the Tricycle Theater, the Guthrie must be commended for having the insight and courage to be one of only four theaters in the United States to host this important work.
Descending that long escalator at the Guthrie following the curtain call for The Master Butchers Singing Club, I wondered out loud to my theater companions how the Guthrie could make the decision to invest in artistic ventures as thrilling as The Great Game and as lackluster as The Master Butchers Singing Club. For days, I dwelled on these disparate theatrical productions. Then it occurred to me. If the Guthrie should be congratulated for having the vision to bring thought provoking new work, like The Great Game, to the Twin Cities, it should also be lauded for taking chances on bringing new voices to the stage.
For me, The Master Butchers Singing Club was a long night at the theater. But our community should see it and support the Guthrie’s decision to produce new work, because the next time the Guthrie tackles an ambitious project like this one, it might have the same impact and success as the Tricycle Theater has had with The Great Game.