Guthrie Theater flourishing in its 25th year. Moli`ere play on stage, `Hamlet' in the wings

GARLAND WRIGHT is the first to admit it's a ``slightly selfish obsession.'' The Guthrie Theater's artistic director, currently guiding the bellwether regional theater through its 25th anniversary season, is referring to his preoccupation with Moli`ere. Mr. Wright opened his artistic directorship last year with ``The Misanthrope.'' This year, in repertory with an ironic spin on ``The Glass Menagerie,'' he has staged Moli`ere's final work, ``The Imaginary Invalid.''

There's nothing imaginary about the current health of the Guthrie. Wright's version of ``Richard III'' ended the 1987-88 season with a welcome word-of-mouth hit. Season ticket sales are up some 7,000 from last year. The current season promises some intriguing projects, including director Lucian Pintilie's staging of ``The Wild Duck'' and Wright's first encounter with ``Hamlet.''

Appointment by Ciulei

Wright's association with the Guthrie goes back to 1980, when Liviu Ciulei, then artistic director, appointed him artistic associate. Wright's strongest productions have included Nelly Sachs's ``Eli''; a fleet-footed adaptation of ``Candide''; a hard-as-nails ``Misanthrope''; and in terms of financial if not artistic punch, ``Guys and Dolls'' and ``Anything Goes.''

``The Imaginary Invalid'' (through Aug. 11) shows off Wright as director, designer, and willing ``ham.'' His spare setting echoes the landscapes of Salvador Dali, dominated by an upstage hanging clock without hands. The comic style employed involves elements of commedia dell'arte rudeness and sinister contemporary overtones.

Even filtered through John Wood's translation, which won't give Richard Wilbur a run for his money, Moli`ere's fearlessly funny play has aged not a bit. Argan, the patient in spite of himself, is obsessed with his ``failing'' health. His scheming wife, impatient brother, lovesick daughter, and wily housekeeper all compete with a bevy of ``specialists'' who know a rich hypochondriac when they see one.

Wright's production reaches its peak - alas, a bit early - at the close of Act I. Guthrie newcomer Andrew Hill Newman contributes a terrific turn as the unsuccessful suitor of Argan's daughter. Emerging with his stuffy father (John Lewin) straight out of the floor via stage elevator, outfitted as a carrot-topped pilgrim destined to make very little progress, Newman lifts the production into a high comic realm.

If the production fails to grow progressively funnier or more complex, it's partly because of Richard Ooms as Argan. Incorporating everything from Donald Duck vocal flourishes to double takes that would put Lou Costello to shame, he is nonetheless not quite up to the role's demands. It is no accident that the Guthrie's biggest successes of late - ``The Misanthrope'' and ``Richard III'' - featured two of the best actors seen at the Guthrie in a long time.

Riding a financial wave

Although the final figures aren't in yet, both ``Invalid'' and the ``Glass Menagerie'' production that alternates in repertory with it (through Sept. 23) have been selling well. The 1988-89 Guthrie season (joined earlier this month by Barbara Field's ``Frankenstein'') is riding a good financial wave. Last year the theater was handed a $1.2 million ``ongoing ensemble grant'' from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Opening Aug. 26 will be Wright's first production of ``Hamlet,'' starring Zeljko Ivanek. It's the very play with which Sir Tyrone Guthrie opened the theater 25 years ago. Following the annual ``Christmas Carol,'' the Guthrie will present the American premi`ere of David Hare and Howard Brenton's ``Pravda'' next Janu-ary.

Importance of the actor

Rightly or wrongly - mostly the latter - the Guthrie under Liviu Ciulei was regarded as a director's theater, with less attention paid to the spoken word and the actors on stage. Now, according to Guthrie literary manager Mark Bly, the creative staff has set its sights on the ``greater clarification that the artist is at the center of this theater - specifically the actor.''

Keeping that at the fore, and keeping a good creative buzz going in a large institutional structure, remains a primary task for Wright.

``I find one does it by raising the stakes,'' he said earlier this year. ``That's something you learn in acting class. If a particular moment isn't working in a scene, you usually figure out that you haven't made your objectives important enough. I have found professionally that that's what you do. You raise the heights of your ambition.''

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