HOW does a world-class repertory theater concoct the right mix of plays for a successful season? ``I think it's like inventing stew,'' says Guthrie artistic director Garland Wright, the chef assigned to the task. ``I've tried to do them by recipe and they always make me unhappy. And yet you can always tell when it tastes right.''
At first glance, the 1989-90 season seems a mix of the familiar and the obscure: a musical, a hit comedy, and a perennial holiday favorite balancing classic Russian and Renaissance dramas.
But in his planning last winter, Wright thought of ``duets'' of plays and how they might affect both the audiences and actors. Thus this spring, the Guthrie opened with ``Harvey'' and ``Uncle Vanya.'' The first is Mary Chase's fantasy about Elwood P. Dowd, who confides in an invisible six-foot rabbit named Harvey; the second is Anton Chekhov's bittersweet look at a quixotic daydreamer who manages a country estate in pre-revolutionary Russia. The audience, says Wright, had a chance to compare two searching souls, Dowd and Vanya.
``To me, it was really remarkable to see a play where somebody worked it out [Harvey] and another one where they didn't [Vanya], and to begin to discover through the duet what the actual process of making choices is like. So [each] began to take on new meaning.''
On view now, and running until mid-October, are a pair of early 17th-century works by two of Shakespeare's contemporaries. In Ben Jonson's dark comedy ``Volpone'' the title character takes fiendish pleasure in deceiving his greedy ``friends'' into thinking he is dying, inducing them to shower him with gifts and favors in the vain hope of being left his considerable estate. In John Webster's ``Duchess of Malfi,'' two brothers, a duke and a cardinal, vow never to let their sister, a beautiful widow, remarry. When she secretly does so, she sets in motion nightmarish events that end in a sea of blood.
For Wright, the nearly 400-year-old plays are laced with contemporary themes. First came the idea of doing ``Duchess,'' something he'd wanted to do for a long time, and ``Volpone came to me when I was watching a rerun of `Dynasty.''' The machinations of real-estate developer Donald Trump ``came to mind.'' The play's themes, to him, sound familiar today: ``greed, obsession with money - a total loss of morality, a vacuum of ethics on everyone's part.''
The introduction of the Jacobian plays, their dark sets and costumes evincing inner darkness, had an unexpected effect on ``Uncle Vanya,'' which some audiences have found a depressing work in its own right. To those who saw the plays together (``Harvey'' has closed; ``Vanya'' closes Sept. 17), and even to the actors themselves, says Wright, ``Vanya'' now is the ``up tune'' in the trio; it ``feels crystalline and transparent next to `Volpone' and `Duchess.'''
A perennial Guthrie favorite, Charles Dickens's ``A Christmas Carol'' (``our Christmas present''), runs from Thanksgiving through New Year's. In mid-January the musical version of Voltaire's ``Candide'' (book by Hugh Wheeler; music by Leonard Bernstein; lyrics by Richard Wilbur, John LaTouche, and Stephen Sondheim) concludes the season. ``I happen to love musicals,'' he says in their defense. ``They're an important [American] art form.... Much of the literature could be called classic.''
The surprise hit of the season, however, may be ``The Screens,'' written by contemporary French playwright Jean Genet and translated by Paul Schmidt. Described in Guthrie publicity as ``an epic saga of power, love, and repression'' during the French occupation of Algeria, it is not a part of the subscription series Guthrie season, but runs as a special offering for 21 performances between Oct. 24 and Nov. 19. The massive production (nearly six hours, including a dinner break) will be staged by controversial director Joanne Akalaitis.
Wright believes the Guthrie may be the first American theater to present ``The Screens'' in its entirety, although portions of it were staged in the US in the 1970s. He sees it as ``contrapuntal'' to the classical ``linear'' plays that precede and follow it. Joining forces with Ms. Akalaitis in an international effort will be composer Philip Glass, who has written an original musical score; Japanese art director Eiko Ishioka; Obie and Tony award-winning lighting designer Jennifer Tipton; and Russian emigr'e set designer George Tsypin.