BWW Review: An Irresistible Tom Hanks Goes for the Gusto as Falstaff in HENRY IV
Director Daniel Sullivan's adaptation of HENRY IV, Parts 1 & 2 may only be playing in the Japanese Garden on the VA campus for another three weeks but it is bound to rank as one of the summer's most talked-about events. Why? Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles has saved up a secret weapon for the production, one few can resist.
Tom Hanks stars as John Falstaff, the fat man with a larger than life personality whose lust for wine, women, feasting and frivolity made him one of Shakespeare's most popular creations. He is the poster boy for dodging responsibility, and a natural choice of companions for a wayward prince indulging in the baser side of life before stepping into the duty-bound role of a king.
It is the illustrious film star's Los Angeles stage debut and it heralds a triumphant return to his acting roots, which includes a handful of Shakespeare roles in the late 1970s at the beginning of his career. It can be hard to forget it is Hanks playing the character, so brightly does his personal star shine, but, even then, it doesn't really matter. Falstaff was the notorious star of Eastcheap and because Hanks himself is so inherently likable, Falstaff only benefits by association.
Of course, the burning question on everyone's lips is, "How is he?" In a word, sensational. Hanks playing Falstaff is a match of actor and character that seems to be MFEO ("made for each other," for you Sleepless in Seattle fans). He blusters jovially through the scenes with gusto, clearly having the time of his life. Shakespeare wears well on him and his natural ease with comedy works to his full advantage. Falstaff is a character a comic actor can sink his teeth into, particularly if said actor can also flip the coin when the situation requires a poignant reversal in tone.
Take the scene where Prince Hal (Hamish Linklater) has been called back to court. To prepare for what he knows will be a difficult meeting with the king, Hal and Falstaff engage in a lively father/son improvisation in front of the barroom audience. It's all fun and games until someone pokes out an eye, or in this case, the joke turns sour.
What begins as fun-loving banter quickly becomes an ungenerous rebuke of Falstaff by the pal he's taken under his wing and come to love (albeit roughly and with questionable intentions) as a son. We can't help but feel sorry for Falstaff in these moments, especially when he turns downstage in silence as Hal's words sink in. Even the most outrageous fool has feelings and since this is Hanks' stock in trade, it hits us just as hard.
The pair has a delicious camaraderie that also does wonders for the fun factor of the whole event. Linklater is a whiz with Shakespeare's text and a physical actor whose style stands off with Hanks in some of the most comical ways. As they traipse through the hills beyond the stage arches, the former bumbling and complaining, the latter stifling a laugh, it's like watching two of the seven dwarves' newest cousins, Sloppy and Cheeky, striking off on a brand new adventure.
Of course, the weight of the prince's impending royal duties adds a serious undercurrent to everything Linklater does. "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown," says his father, King Henry IV (Joe Morton) in Pt. 2 of the evening, a statement that applies not only to his unease about the way he deposed the previous King, Richard II, but to the young prince's apprehension about his own leap into an unknown future..
Morton does skillful work maneuvering through the political plotting and machinations of Shakespeare's history play, along with a cadre of excellent classical actors that includes Harry Groener (Northumberland/Shallow), Josh Clark (Worcester/Chief Justice), Geoffrey Wade (Westmoreland/Fang), Time Winters (Bardolph/Mowbry), Jeff Marlow (Archbishop/Blunt), Chris Rivera (Poins) and Ray Porter (Douglas/Warwick).
Emily Swallow owns the field in her short stage time as Lady Percy, wife to Hotspur (Raffi Barsoumian), so nicknamed for his hot temper and ferocious ability on the battlefield and Rondi Reed's Mistress Quickly adds humor and a devilishly entertaining twisted merriment to the Boar's Head where she is inn keeper.
Bottom line: No posturing or pretense, just a lot of damn fine acting on a woodland stage tucked away in the middle of LA's urban sprawl. That's what you'll get in HENRY IV.
Don't worry about needing to study up on the story before you go. The program does the work for you, culling it down to an easily understood two pages and also providing the set-up and division of characters. A few extraneous scenes are cut and internal dialogue tightened up quite a bit to achieve the evening's three hour and fifteen minute running time. If you know the plays well, you won't miss a thing.
While you're picnicking before the show (grounds open at 6:30 pm) take notice of the sturdy new picnic tables built by the veterans hired on to crew the show and produce the performances. It's expert work by the team of vets working through SCLA's Veterans in Arts program who gain on-the-job vocational training to assist in transitioning from active military duty to employment in the community. They assist in every facet of the production to create an incredible experience for theatregoers. To learn more about the program or to make a donation, visit www.shakespearecenter.org.
June 5 - July 1, 2018
The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles at
The Japanese Garden on the West Los Angeles VA Campus
229 Patton Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90049
Tickets and info: www.henryiv.org
Photo credit: Craig Schwartz