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"Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings," King Richard says to his surrounding minions as his monarchy slips away.

On its face, that sounds unappealing. But as put into practice by the Guthrie Theater, Shakespeare's History Plays — "Richard II," "Henry IV," and "Henry V" — are absorbing and exhilarating.

The production opened Saturday in a 13-hour marathon in Minneapolis, with the plays running back to back (with breaks). Even if you might think about bringing an oxygen tank to climb this theatrical Everest, it's worth the once-in-a-generation journey. (The Guthrie repeats the marathon May 18; all the individual shows can be taken in a la carte between now and then.)

With director Joseph Haj and dramaturge Carla Steen as guides, a company of 25 actors scale the lofty heights with stamina, style and lyrical aplomb. The actors handle the language with assured skill and transport us into an ancient England that feels resonant of contemporary America. On the circular set, there's a ritual of all the great impulses that animate people, and also make people show themselves as animals.

Haj and Steen have distilled these narratives about the lust for power while preserving the shows' best lines and bringing up the comedy, making them digestible for audiences with short attention spans.

"Richard II" is about a king becoming a man. Or, alternatively, you learn more from pain and privation than from comfort and pleasure. "Henry IV" is about a man becoming a king. And "Henry V" is about a king becoming a hero.

'Richard II'

The crown: Haj starts the dramas with the crown, a simple gold circle, lit evocatively at center stage like an invitation to some eternal ritual or a portal into a new dimension. The light catches it as it's held in the hands of the three successive monarchs, a reflector of swirling virtues and vices, of crushing ambition and weighty responsibility.

For Richard, who holds it lightly, the crown could be a plaything. Where should it go? Oh, yes, the head, where it always sits ill at ease, especially when there are those plotting to wrest it away.

Richard thinks of the crown's hollowness and imparts power to the otherwise empty souls who dare to wear it. The crown is caught up in eternal struggles for power and self-actualization. "Sometimes I am a king, then people's treasons (like Bolingbroke's) make me want to be a beggar, and so I am," Richard says. "Then extreme poverty makes me want to be a king again, and so I am. And then I soon lose my crown again because of Bolingbroke. And once again am nothing."

The king: Richard is a sort of Hamlet who wears his thoughts on the outside of his head and forgets himself altogether in his musings (sometimes he has to be reminded of who he is). For those who have seen Tyler Michaels King play Puck and Ariel onstage at the Guthrie, he is the embodiment of whimsy and magic. But Michaels King shows that he is just at home in gravitas, stepping into these royal robes with masterful authority.

The court: Is there anything more effective than a mother's plea? When the Duke of Aumerle (Tracey Maloney) gets caught up in a plot, the Duchess of York (Jasmine Bracey) seeks to win the king's forgiveness. She gets on her knees and uses wit and charm, while dismissing her husband (David Andrew Macdonald), to save her child's life.

There are no slouches when it comes to the actors' line readings but these two stand out alongside Charity Jones as John of Gaunt and Melissa Maxwell as the Duchess of Gloucester.

Design: The action takes place on Jan Chambers' huge turntable of balconies, upturned naves and a throne enfolded by scaffolds. It's epic and theatrical and, with Heather Gilbert's lighting and Jack Herrick's compositions, brings cinematic magic to the proceedings. Gilbert makes the set appear and disappear with her lighting scheme and directs our eyes like a camera. When Richard is being led away to his ignoble fate, with the masses hurling stones and insults at him, both lights and sound design are used to quiet the rabble as Richard and his queen (Lanise Antoine Shelley) share moments of tenderness.

Money quotes: "Not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm from an anointed king," Richard says, but he later changes his tune. "With mine own tears I wash away my balm, with mine own hands I give away my crown."

"The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed the shadow of your face," Bolingbroke.

"I wasted time, and now doth time waste me," Richard, dropping the mic.

The grade: As a practice, Shakespeare has royals speak in poetry and the regular lumpen in prose. But he departs from that in this play, which, in its execution and delivery is a total, gorgeous and altogether affecting seduction of language. A-plus.

'Henry IV'

The crown: In the hands of Henry IV, the former Bolingbroke who holds it lustily, the crown is an object of bottomless, perverting ambition. He looks on it like the most sumptuous of meals. But his hunger for power and revenge is such that it might be consumed in one gulp.

The king: "Henry IV" is a connective tissue play in the marathon, one that deals with the wages of original sin and the Eastcheap education of Prince Hal. The king seeks to sanctify how he came to power, to have it be blessed, even if a sense of illegitimacy gnaws at his soul. Will Sturdivant leaps with alacrity into the maws of this character of large, overweening appetites. The actor delivers with relish. And if death can be said to be beautiful, his is gorgeous.

The court: Vaunted literary critic Harold Bloom regarded Falstaff as "the grandest personality in all of Shakespeare." He's a portly, bawdy remorseless liar who exudes joie de vivre. Jimmy Kieffer's Falstaff is glib and charming. He gets us to marvel at the charm, and not the falsehoods, of a creative liar.

Money quotes: "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."

"Can Honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is Honour? A word. What is that word 'honour'? Air."

The grade: This is an A-minus, but it's not because of the actors. Shakespeare himself should have stuck with that blank verse throughout.

'Henry V'

The crown: By the time we come to Hal, the crown is a porthole held aloft. It offers a view into a misty, breathing darkness that he holds spellbound. The question of where to wear it is easy for him. Though it fits right on his head — he was born for it, after all — he casually takes it off to go incognito and hear the true feelings of his fighters.

In "Henry IV," Hal has his caterpillar stage, learning under Falstaff and his dissolute bunch. And yet when the prince puts on the king's crown, he's transformed into a monarch, a creature of muscle and fleet flight. If the game is afoot, let's have at it, he says. If blood must be let, then let it splash with vigor and relish.

The king: Henry V is efficient and clear-eyed to the edge of psychopathy. And Daniel José Molina shows it in eyes that flash with example-making glee in his treatment of traitors. The king makes moral and mortal examples of them, strangling one brute with his bare hands. His romancing of Princess Kate is complicated but well-done. Henry is, after all, a conqueror. But Molina injects enough awkwardness for it to be charming.

The court: The French court characters are literal and metaphorical stitches. The personages include Kurt Kwan as serious King Charles VI, Dustin Bronson as the flighty dauphin and Erin Mackey as scene-stealing Princess Katherine.

Design: Throughout the plays, Trevor Bowen's costumes have supported the narratives with royal regalia that bear the weight of duty with beauty, gravity with glow. But when he dresses the French court in contemporary couture, it also gets at the humor so redolent throughout these plays.

Money quotes: Perhaps caused by some combination of delirium, exhaustion and exhilaration, there was a moment of magical ovation and instant rapture at Saturday's opening when the chorus marched mightily onto the stage. Their delivery of a muse of fire opening was gorgeous as they played out the last play about "a kingdom for a stage, princes to act, and monarchs to behold the swelling scene."

"That's a valiant flea that dare eat his breakfast on the lip of a lion."

"Dear Kate, you and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country's fashion: we are the makers of manners, Kate," King Henry.

The grade: Haj and Steen have been skillful in their treatment of Shakespeare's script. Still, there's a little scene that's supposed to inject humor, and does, even though it could be nipped to move things along. A.

Overall: These plays create a similar moment of marvel in the cultural life of Minnesota and the nation. Patrons from 26 states and two Canadian provinces flew in for Saturday's opening. The History Plays mark a major milestone in American theater, a moment of brilliant achievement for Minnesota and the field.

History Plays

Who: Written by William Shakespeare and directed by Joseph Haj.

When: The final marathon is on May 18, with shows at 10 a.m., 3 and 8:30 p.m. This week's a la carte schedule: 7:30 p.m. Tue., 1 & 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thu. & Fri., "Richard II"; 1 & 7:30 Sat.: "Henry IV"; 1 p.m. Sun.: "Henry V." The plays run in rotating repertory through May 25.

Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.

Tickets: $34-$82 for single tickets on nonmarathon days, $66-$150 for all shows on May 18. 612-377-2224,