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Staging 50 Years of History Plays - in 30-Minute Set Changes

HOW do you ``age'' several hundred square feet of shiny new copper sheathing in only a few days' time? That was just one of the problems confronting lead scene-painter Colleen Ballance in preparing the stage sets for the Guthrie Theater's Shakespeare histories.

After much experimenting, her answer involved using potash and blow torches to give the copper the patina requested by the scenic designer, and special glues to adhere the sheathing to the backdrop and floors of the set.

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As a half-century of history unfolds in the course of the three plays, the stage itself will undergo a transformation, says Guthrie press director Dennis Behl. Yet each orchestrated set change will take the Guthrie's work crew only 30 minutes to complete, allowing the three plays to be seen all in one day.

In the first of the triology, ``Richard II,'' the copper-coated set - together with elaborate historical costumes - set a traditional tone.

In ``Henry IV,'' dark wooden floors and walls evoke the tavern in which Falstaff and young Prince Hal carouse.

For ``Henry V,'' the stage takes on the spartan look of a rehearsal hall, with actors in informal dress.

The ``Richard II'' and ``Henry IV'' sets are exposed backstage as the play's Chorus asks the audience to set free its imagination and ``pardon, gentles all/ The flat unraised spirits that have dared/ On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth/ So great an object.''

The arrival of Henry V at the French court - where the French king and his court suddenly appear in full historical regalia - visually completes the cycle with a return to traditional costumes.

The shape of the stage itself is a ``reverberation'' of the Guthrie's own history, says Mr. Behl. The thrust stage, with audience on three sides and edged with several steps used as part of the playing surface, returns to the shape first used by Sir Tyrone Guthrie when he founded the theater in 1963.

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Musical underscoring for the plays is provided by a ``band'' formed of company members, using conventional instruments along with ``bizarre'' ones fabricated from materials such as PVC plastic tubing, Behl says.

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