Longtime Guthrie Theater actor Ken Ruta remembers performing in "The Bacchae" in 1987 in Minneapolis under visionary director Liviu Ciulei.

"He wanted us to rehearse in full costumes from the outset, which meant that he rode the designers hard," Ruta said Tuesday. "Liviu went through two costume designers and when we opened, the costumes were by one Liviu Ciulei. He was an exacting visionary with this artist's eye. But the result was always visually compelling."

Ciulei, a bold, inventive Romanian theater and film director who headed the Guthrie from 1980 to 1985, died Monday night at a hospital in Munich, Germany. He was 88.

On Tuesday, Romanian President Traian Basescu called Ciulei the most influential figure in that nation's theater and film. Ciulei belonged to an "elite generation," he said, with an artistic vision that was "classic and modern, extremely clear and contemporary."

"What do they say? A mighty oak has fallen," said the Guthrie's director of artistic relations, Sheila Livingston, who worked in education under Ciulei. "Liviu was a profound artist who saw the stage, acting and great texts as a way to create special worlds."

Ciulei's most memorable Guthrie production was "The Tempest," his first as artistic director. The production's signature design feature was a moat of blood in which the relics of civilization floated. New York Times critic Frank Rich called the staging "superb."

The show had a cast of then-unknowns, including future Golden Globe winner Frances Conroy ("Six Feet Under") and four-time Tony winner Boyd Gaines.

"Liviu's many interests coalesced in the theater," said Ruta, who played Prospero in that 1981 "Tempest" and was directed by Ciulei in other productions at the Guthrie, in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. "His parents wanted him to be an opera singer. He wanted to be a painter. He studied architecture in school. That's why he could spend an hour showing an actor how to hold his finger just so, like he'd seen in a painting. Liviu was a total theater artist who created brilliant, stunning stage images."

Born in Romania's capital of Bucharest, Ciulei studied architecture and acting there. He began his acting career in 1946 as Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and turned his hand to directing in 1957. He staged plays and operas worldwide, making his mark with a bold visual aesthetic and a politically charged approach to directing.

"All those Eastern European directors who made a splash because their way was so different from the British way -- he was the leader and mentor of all of them," said Ruta, pointing to renowned provocateur Andrei Serban as one example.

At the Guthrie, Ciulei redesigned the original thrust stage, allowing it to be used in a variety of ways. He also expanded the repertoire, where his own productions included a stage adaptation of William Faulkner's "Requiem for a Nun," Bertolt Brecht's and Kurt Weill's "Threepenny Opera" and a two-part "Peer Gynt." Ciulei's leadership brought the theater renewed national recognition, including a regional Tony Award.

Ciulei, who taught at Columbia and New York universities after leaving the Guthrie, also directed or acted in more than 20 films. He won the Palme d'Or, the Cannes Film Festival's top award, in 1965 for "The Forest of the Hanged."

Survivors include his wife, drama critic Helga Reiter-Ciulei, and filmmaker son Thomas Ciulei.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390