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Funeral Song along the riverfront
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"Carmen Funebre" is performed by Polish theater company Teatr Biuro Podrozy. Menacing characters on stilts, one representing death, choose "victims" from the audience, whip them and sometimes kill them. This performance took place in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater Company)
Just hours after breaking ground at the site of its planned new National Center for Theater Arts and Education, the Guthrie Theater presents its first production along the riverfront. Some say the modern theater piece is a sign of what's to come.

Minneapolis, Minn. — This week, in recognition of the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the Guthrie Theater and the Walker Art Center are co-presenting Carmen Funebre. It's a dark look at the horrors of war, as seen through the eyes of Polish theater group Teatr Biuro Podrozy. It's based on interviews conducted with refugees of the war in Bosnia.

James Morrison, the director of the Guthrie's WORLDstage Series, says this is just the latest step in an ongoing effort to increase the Guthrie's role in bringing new stage work to the United States.

"You don't just open a theater and say, 'OK, here we are, now we're going to start doing more shows,'" says Morrison. "It's about nurturing those relationships now, so that when we open our doors in 2006 we'll be able to bring in companies from all over the world."

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Image A human wall

As darkness falls over the asphalt lot, the audience forms a rectangle around a makeshift stage. It's a simple set -- a large gate and two platforms, plus a few props. From out of the darkness, far from the gathered crowd, approach two imposing figures on stilts. They wear leather vests and helmets that cover their faces. They carry bright searchlights in their hands.

They break into the crowd, pick out victims -- actors in reality -- and whip them into submission. The captured attempt to escape, but the way is blocked by the wall of the audience.

As the mostly wordless play continues, the performers portray the travesties of war from multiple perspectives. There are those who grieve the loss of their loved ones. There are the soldiers who return from war with missing limbs and eyes, only to be shunned as freaks. And then there are the atrocities committed by soldiers drunken with power.

As they pass a bottle between them, four soldiers take turns spraying red wine into the face of a woman, and toss her about until she is barely conscious.

I'm very proud of the Guthrie to ... go into this more experimental and edgy work. There was nothing safe about this play, so I applaud the Guthrie for doing that. I hope it's a statement of things to come.
- Audience member Jeannie Pekos

Carmen Funebre, which means Funeral Song, assaults the senses. The smell of alcohol drifts through the audience. Later the set burns, sending sparks and smoke into the air. Audience member Jeannie Pekos says it's a powerful piece, often painful to watch, but she's glad she came.

"I think it's great. I'm very proud of the Guthrie to ... go into this more experimental and edgy work," says Pekos. "There was nothing safe about this play, so I applaud the Guthrie for doing that. I hope it's a statement of things to come."

The Walker Art Center is co-presenting Carmen Funebre with the Guthrie. Walker's Performing Arts Curator Phillip Bither says while the Guthrie works with the Walker to sponsor such events once or twice a year, he doesn't see this performance as a signal of some great shift in the focus of the Guthrie's work.

"The traditions and the reputation that (the Guthrie) has garnered nationally and internationally, is in a certain type of theater which tends to be more classically oriented," says Bither. "I think now and long into the future, the Guthrie is primarily a producing organization."

But Bither says he does look forward to growing opportunities for the Walker to collaborate with the theater company.

"I think the whole community is excited that the Guthrie is building a new complex," Bither says. "I will anticipate that when our new performance space opens in February of 2005, that in that first year or two there will be some fantastic things the Guthrie and Walker will do together in that space, and in some of the new theaters that the Guthrie is constructing."

The Guthrie's James Morrison says the fact that the theater is presenting such a bold modern work as Carmen Funebre on its new land, so soon after breaking ground, is no coincidence. He says he realized soon after funding for the new complex came through that the Guthrie would be able to break ground the same week as the planned run of Carmen Funebre.

"Literally, after breaking ground Monday, I was down here Tuesday morning with the load-in for this production, and Tuesday night there was a dress rehearsal on this site. So I think that the site has really now been officially christened," says Morrison.

When asked if audiences should take this latest production as a sign of what's to come, Morrison says, "I hope so." Carmen Funebre runs through Sunday at the site of the Guthrie's planned three-stage theater complex in downtown Minneapolis. Construction fo the new complex begins in October, and the building is set to open in May 2006.

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