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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Henry IV

i>Do nothing but eat and make good cheer." — Company drinking song at the opening of Henry IV.
Tom Hanks. (Photo by Craig Schwartz)
The exterior trappings are pretty basic: a wooden chair atop an otherwise unadorned stage, a series of arches leading out onto a garden hillside, all in a three-quarter proscenium configuration that leaves people on the sides with not the greatest visuals, but it'll do. It's a functional stage, assembled by a special group of working men. As "wooden O's" go, the space designed by Ralph Funicello in the Japanese Gardens on the grounds of the VA Administration will more than suffice for the business at hand.

Onto that stage tromps a portly man, carrying a tankard. Grey-haired and bearded, he plops his sizeable behind into the aforementioned chair. Knowing as we do that we are in the realm of Shakespeare's Henry IV, the drinking man can be no person other than Sir John Falstaff. The immortal (and immoral) fat knight of Eastcheap proceeds to drain the last of his liquid and then starts banging the empty cup on the arm of his chair to launch the company, which has joined him on stage, in a drinking song. That bit of introductory revels concluded, we join Henry Bolingbroke (AKA Henry IV) fretting over affairs of state…

Oh, and just by the way, about that Falstaff who we just met? He's being played by Tom Hanks. That's right, underneath the padding and grizzle, the song and the swagger is a two-time Oscar winner and Hollywood icon who doesn't often appear live on stage. And he's performing outdoor Shakespeare. In Los Angeles.

Hanks's presence in the Shakespeare Center Los Angeles production of Henry IV may simultaneously qualify as the must-see event of the summer (at least for those Angelenos who would not normally come within a country mile of a theater), and as an exemple of how to build a stellar Shakespearean ensemble.

Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson are longtime supporters of SCLA (formerly Shakespeare Festival/LA), but have never acted for the company with the exception of the annual Simply Shakespeare benefit readings. The actor's willingness to take the stage for a three-week summer run is, in essence, a promise fulfilled to SCLA's Artistic Director Ben Donenberg and, if you will, to the Los Angeles theater-going community.

Hanks' presence here is a star turn, but it's also a blend-in. He's got second billing in the list of principals alphabetically behind Harry Groener (who plays Northumberland and Shallow). Hanks's short program bio notes his stage debut playing Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew at the Great Lakes Theater Festival in 1977 and that "in the years since, he has appeared in film on Broadway and has written for film and television." The same program dedicates a full 10 pages to the work of the U.S. military veterans who built the stage and run crew and are being trained for jobs in the theater as part of the thriving Veterans in Art partnership between SCLA and the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

Back to the SCLA "Henry IV," which is excellent. Unquestionably, Hanks has the showiest role here; in any production of Henry IV worth its sack and sugar, the person essaying Falstaff better not be a nonentity. As the occasion dictates, Hanks's Falstaff is canny, conniving, jolly, wistful, declining and plenty lusty. The man can dash off a string of Bard-ian insults ("you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stock-fish!") with the best of ‘em. As big as Falstaff is, Hanks never makes the man larger than life. He doesn't overwhelm the stage. The performer is just really, really good.

Part of what makes this Falstaff so strong is the company he's keeping. Veteran Broadway and Shakespeare in the Park director Daniel Sullivan has rounded up a group of performers that any Shakespeare festival would envy —, from Hamish Linklater's tic-ridden and careworn Prince Hal to Josh Clark's splendidly treacherous Earl of Worcester to Steppenwolf stalwart Rondi Reed as Mistress Quickly. Many of the roles are creatively doubled, often giving the actor a comic and dramatic role, which further displays their strengths.

As was the case with the Dakin Matthews adaptation that played Broadway in 2003-04, Sullivan has conflated the two parts of Henry IV into a single three-hour evening with each play taking up a single act. I'll always think Part 2 to be the weaker, less interesting play and, viewed immediately after Part 1, it carries a certain plot redundancy. But in part 2, we get an extra strong dose of Falstaff.

Despite the play's title and the presence of the fat knight, Henry IV turns its lens most keenly on Prince Hal, the future Henry V and his journey from gadabout to monarch. Linklater, another Shakespeare in the Park regular, excels as an anxious, twitchy Hall who seems as much out of place both in the bars of Eastcheap as he is in the royal court. The schemes to rob, dupe and shame Falstaff hatched with running mate Poins (Chris Rivera) aren't giving this Hal much pleasure, and Linklater's repeated promises to make this Prince a better ruler ("I'll so offend to make offence a skill")) come across almost as defensive and self-loathing instead of a heroic pledge.

Where Linklater's Hal is appropriately wayward and conflicted, Raffi Barsoumian's honor-seeking Hotspur is anything but. Barsoumian is as convincing as the angry upstart as he is in the quieter moments bidding farewell to his Lady Percy (Emily Swallow). Shakespeare dispatches Hotspur a bit too soon, but Barsoumian comes back majestically in a rich comic turn as Pistol, Falstaff's romantic rival for Doll Tearsheet (Swallow again).

As his King tries to quell civil unrest and get his wayward son acting more like royalty, Joe Morton's King Henry seems to age practically by the scene. By the time he reaches his final reconciliation with Hal late in the second act, it's clear how much of a toll the duties of royalty have taken. Both scenes between Linklater and Morton carry an emotional kick, and once he has buried his father, Hal has one more "father figure" to settle accounts with before he can assume the mantle of Henry V. The influence of fathers over sons and vice versa is felt keenly in this production. We see it in Groener's Northumberland, aching with regret over being too weak to fight with Hotspur at the Battle of Shrewsbury and in Hanks and Linklater acting out the tongue lashing that Hal expects he will receive from his father back at court

The delights of witnessing a polished ensemble work this material are considerable. Whether we're watching Clark's Worcester maneuver his way out of a potential truce, the scheming of Hal's brother Lancaster (Chris Myers) to thwart the Archbishop of Canterbury (Jeff Marlow) or Groener's Justice Shallow overseeing the recruitment of soldiers, the company doesn't have a single weak link.

Audience members who have seen Sullivan's past Bard work on both coasts (he has been a frequent director of Shakespeare at San Diego's Old Globe and Orange County's South Coast Repertory) will recognize the trademark deftness of his work. A Sullivan ensemble knows the language, inhabits their characters, and serves up a ripping good story. And this time, marvelously, one of those ensemble members is a star who is right at home with his fellow players. If fortune shines upon us, perhaps Hanks will return next year for a comedy and bring Wilson along for the fun. Bottom and Benedict beckon.

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Henry IV
by William Shakespeare
Produced by Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles and Santa Monica College Theatre Arts Department
Directed by Daniel Sullivan

Cast: Anthony Mark Barrow, Raffi Barsoumian, Josh Clark, Benji Coelho, James Michael Cowan, Sheldon Donenberg, Harry Groener, Tom Hanks, Hamish Linklater, Jeff Marlow, Joe Morton, Chris Myers, Chris O'Reilly, Alexander Pimentel, Ray Porter, Rondi Reed, Chris Rivera, Emily Swallow, Peter Van Norden, Geoffrey Wade, Time Winters
Scenic Design: Ralph Funicello
Costume Design: Holly Poe Durbin
Lighting Design: trevor Norton
Sound Design: Drew Dalzell
Composer and Soundscape: Michael Roth
Production Stage Manager: David Lober
Fight Director: Steve Rankin
Plays through July 1, 2018 at the Japanese Garden on the West Los Angeles VA campus, 229 Patton Ave., L.A.
Running time: three hours with one 15 minute intermission.
Reviewed by Evan Henerson

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