There is truly nothing like live theater. At the performance of Henry IV attended for this review, the show was stopped about forty minutes in to act one due to a medical emergency in the audience (according to an announcement made later, the person was ultimately alright). During the fifteen minute pause, as audience members debated whether to stay seated or roam around, Tom Hanks suddenly reappeared on stage and began improvising, perfectly in character as Falstaff, entertaining the sold-out crowd and creating an unforgettable moment. At one point, he even brought a particularly lively audience member in the front row on stage, asking her where she traveled from to see the performance. “Burbank,” she answered, and Hanks did not miss a beat, joking about how she crossed the 405 to be there.
While this was a rare moment, it captured the overall spirit of The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’s production of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, now playing at the Japanese Garden at the West Los Angeles VA Campus. Directed by Dan Sullivan, this take condenses Part One and Part Two of Henry IV into one three hour and twenty minute evening, creating a night of theater that simultaneously feels larger than life and as intimate as if you are attending a performance in Hanks’s living room.
In Part One, King Henry IV (Joe Morton) and his son, Prince Harry (Hamish Linklater) are at odds. The King is dismayed by the way his son and heir chooses to conduct himself, spending copious amounts of time at local pubs with unsavory characters including Falstaff (Hanks), a man who is large in both stature and personality. Falstaff is a lowlife, stealing and lying his way through life, but he is also undeniably charming, making no apologies and impressing others with his wit. Meanwhile, an unhappy group of noblemen are plotting a rebellion because the King refuses to acknowledge his debt to them. At the end of act one, Prince Harry saves his father’s life in a battle with the rebels, earning his way into his good graces. Part Two follows Prince Harry as he begins to distance himself from Falstaff and his old friends, preparing to take the throne as the King grows increasingly ill.
As a play, Henry IV is not one of Shakespeare’s best. The plot is a bit convoluted and meandering, particularly in Part Two, which has approximately five near-endings before its actual conclusion. There are, of course, some great monologues, including the famous line “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” but multiple storylines cause the action to feel disconnected at times. Condensing the two parts into one mostly works, and the material included is plenty to explain the core relationships and conflict. The venue at the Japanese Garden is lovely and unique, a woodsy setting that allows one to temporarily forget they are in Los Angeles, a stone’s throw from major freeways. It is reminiscent of the wonderful Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and the trees are even incorporated into the minimalistic set, with the company often entering and exiting through the woods behind and to the sides of the stage. The battle scenes are well-staged and entertaining, inserting some vigor into what is otherwise a very talky piece.
Hanks appears to be having the time of his life in his Los Angeles stage debut. For an actor who is not primarily known for either theater in general or Shakespeare, he is completely at home as the simultaneously arrogant and cowardly Falstaff. He seamlessly combines the complicated language with effective physical humor and had the entire audience, as well as the rest of the cast, eating out of the palm of his hand. At the end of the play, when Prince Harry turns on him in favor of his newfound power and responsibility, the heartbreak in his face is evident, a stark contrast to the buffoonish humor demanded by most of the play. Hanks commands the entire space while also making it feel as if he is addressing each audience member individually, resulting in a performance that feels like a rare treat to see. The rest of the cast is also excellent, particularly Linklater, and the ensemble features many performers fans of the 99-seat theater scene in Los Angeles will recognize. Whether or not Shakespeare is your cup of tea, there’s something special about this cast and production, and Hanks’s work alone is well worth the sizable time commitment.
Henry IV runs at the Japanese Garden at the West Los Angeles VA Campus through July 1st. Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays at 8pm. The running time is three hours and twenty minutes including one intermission. Please note that Tom Hanks will not appear on June 16th and June 17th. The Shakespeare Center is providing thousands of complimentary tickets for veterans and active members of the military who enter their names and service information at www.ShakespeareCenter.org/military To purchase tickets, click here. Make sure to dress warmly and arrive early at this outdoor venue, as the VA Campus is sprawling and it takes a bit of time to park and locate your seat.