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Experiencing Shakespeare's Historic Sweep

At the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, adventurous summer playgoers can take in three sequential history dramas in a single day. THEATER: INTERVIEWS

A BANNER stretching across the wall on the first day of rehearsal issued the challenge: ``All things are ready if our minds be so.'' Energized by the words from Shakespeare's ``Henry V,'' the Guthrie Theater acting company has set out on a task that no other American theater company has tackled: to perform Shakespeare's ``Richard II,'' ``Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2),'' and ``Henry V'' - in one season.

In fact, once during preview performances (June 23) and again on opening day (June 30), audiences will be able to attend all three of these history plays on a single day. On six other occasions, they may see the series over a two-day span.

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All but two of the 28 members of the acting company will appear in all three productions. And because events throughout the trio of plays take place in chronological order over a half-century of British history, several members of the company will play the same characters in more than one production. The actor playing Henry Bolingbroke in Richard II, for example, also plays Henry IV when his character assumes the throne in the second part of the trilogy. The actor playing his son (Prince Hal in ``Henry IV''), takes the title role as his character assumes the throne in ``Henry V.''

Though each play ``stands independently,'' says Guthrie Theater artistic director Garland Wright in a statement released prior to the plays' openings, ``together they convey a sweeping sense of history in the making - filled with human tragedy, adventure, humor, theatrical imagination and, of course, the author's magnificent poetry.''

Along with offering audiences a special perspective, staging the triple productions concurrently is a device for further developing the acting company itself, a goal of Wright's ever since he took the reigns at the 27-year-old regional theater company in 1986.

From the first day of rehearsal earlier this year, Wright and co-director Charles Newell took an innovative approach to the task, says Brenda Wehle, who's in her fourth season as an actress with the company.

``We didn't even know how to begin,'' she recalls. ``None of us knew how it was going to work.'' To start, the whole company discussed each scene of the plays together. In addition to scholarly research done by the theater's dramaturg, many actors brought in their own research on the plays. ``The benefit of that came early on in how much each actor knew about the entire cycle,'' Ms. Wehle explains, ``as opposed to, usually, you know everything you need to know about your character - period.''

``We also got up on our feet immediately, something you never do,'' she says. ``Usually you sit around the table forever.... The actors would take a scene and begin trying to breathe a life into it.... If you're not used to working that way, it's very intimidating. It makes you feel very uncertain.''

In the end, however, she says, ``this made you investigate areas you might not have come up with under the routine rehearsal process.''

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Rather than import ``name actors'' known for television or films for key roles, the Guthrie troupe handles all the parts, while keeping individual egos in check. ``We have a joke we call TRS, Title Role Syndrome,'' says Wehle, who has modest roles in two of the history plays. ``I'm accused of having pre-TRS right now because I'll be doing [the title role in] `Medea' [later in the season].''

``Usually, you have TRS even in the regional [theater] world; you behave, you know, in a certain fashion. You don't get away with that here.''

The history plays paint on a broad canvas, portraying momentous events like the rise and fall of kings and armies locked in battle. Since Shakespeare relies heavily on the power of language to convey these images, speaking his lines is a challenge for any theater company.

The Guthrie has employed a vocal coach, Karen Miller, to help the actors, using breathing and other vocal exercises. The ``language is daunting,'' agrees Ms. Wehle. ``The images are so rich.'' The company, she says, is ``looking to find our own way of speaking that language that's American, that is not a copy of the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company]....''

Whatever the speaking style, the imagery in the text must be clear, she says. ``You can almost be put to sleep by the beauty of the rhythm and the iambic pentameter done so perfectly'' that meaning can be lost. Her challenge, she says, is to be really ``living through'' the role, not just speaking verse.

The three Shakespeare histories are really four, since ``Henry IV Parts 1 and 2'' are usually performed separately. The Guthrie has cut some 2,650 lines and a number of secondary characters from the text in combining the two plays.

``Richard II'' and ``Henry V'' have undergone smaller cuts, and the final versions of all three plays draw on several somewhat different texts of each that have been published over the years.

The Shakespeare series will run in repertory through Sept. 2, though it is likely further productions will be mounted in the fall as part of the Guthrie's extensive program to introduce schoolchildren to the theater.

A pair of classic American comedies, ``The Skin of Our Teeth'' by Thornton Wilder, and ``The Front Page'' by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, open in September.

They will be followed in November by the Guthrie's annual production of Charles Dickens' ``A Christmas Carol.'' The season concludes with Euripides' Greek tragedy ``Medea,'' which debuts in January 1991.

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