The following review is based on the June 13th performance of “Henry IV.”
Tom Hanks is one of the very few rare breeds in Hollywood when it comes to having an unflaggingly consistent staying power, as one who has remained an A-list headliner for nearly four decades. Arguably only one other individual can say the same, and his name is also Tom (Cruise).
With an eclectic range of films, including tremendous versatility exhibited in “Big,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Forrest Gump,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Cast Away,” “The Da Vinci Code,” and “Captain Phillips,” to only name a few of the classics in his bountiful film resume, the two-time Oscar winner is a modern-day acting legend. And yet, Hanks, for all his cachet, has thrived on always being gracious and altruistic with his time.
It so happens that Hanks, on June 5th, made his Los Angeles stage debut in the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ “Henry IV” (inclusive of Parts 1 and 2) at the Japanese Garden on the West Los Angeles VA Campus in a production spectacularly directed by Tony Award-winner Daniel Sullivan. The grey-bearded and paunch-sporting Hanks portrays the waggishly carefree Sir John Falstaff, alongside Joe Morton (“Terminator 2: Judgement Day”) as Henry IV, Hamish Linklater (“The New Adventures of Old Christine”) as Hal, Rondi Reed (“August: Osage County” on Broadway) as Mistress Quickly, Raffi Barsoumian (“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” on Broadway) as Hotspur/Pistol, Harry Groener (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as Justice Shallow/Northumberland, Emily Swallow as Lady Percy/Doll Tearsheet, and many more stage virtuosos.
For Hanks, “Henry IV” (which runs through July 1st) is a celebration of the actor’s roots, who began performing with the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland, Ohio, 41 years ago for a total of three seasons, beginning with a turn as Grumio in “The Taming of the Shrew.” Shortly thereafter, he would experience the takeoff of TV’s “Bosom Buddies,” which forever changed the trajectory of his life.
Clocking in at three hours and fifteen minutes, “Henry IV” does the impossible by not wearing thin on the mind’s eye (given all the material it covers) and instead increasingly wins over the contentment of the observer, who is advised to dress warmly. In the indelible story of a father (Henry IV) and his son (Prince Hal), we witness a coming-of-age narrative in which Hal is beckoned by a series of insurrections threatening his father’s rule, compelling the Prince to right his disreputable ways, learn of the common people, and reclaim his noble status. Of course, his best pal, Falstaff, a charming deviant and endearing babbler – notable for his jubilantly venal and lovably slick ways – is at times too oddly winsome to relinquish until responsible reflection forces the inevitable.
Throughout the duration, Sullivan’s skilled direction ensures that the play vacillates between equal parts comedy and drama, intertwining in a display of mirth and poignancy. This difficult balance is triumphantly achieved, as audience members are immersed in the art-imitates-life elements of hijinks, hubris, earnestness, and redemption.
Ralph Funicello’s wooden set design (comprised of several arches) is raw and real, a perfect complement to the touching narrative. Holly Poe Durbin’s costumes pay homage to the play’s historical grandeur, with colorful robes, tunics, capes, mesh, and other royal garb, which are underscored by Trevor Norton’s accented outdoor lighting design, including that of the rear foliage, and Drew Dalzell’s percussive sound design.
Tom Hanks becomes as much a larger-than-life personality onstage as he is onscreen, blending seamlessly into Falstaff’s rotund body, plying his charisma and his inimitable charisma to the delight of the 600-plus attendees. Stuffed with a protruding belly (there are countless witticisms referencing how wide he is), and clad in orange and beige, Hanks, with long-stringed silver hair and all, transforms to become a riotous, yet sympathetic, Falstaff.
Ever the consummate professional, Hanks’ Falstaff waddles, limps, loses his breath easily, and trips over himself all the while valorously having the audience in the palm of his hand. For instance, monologues about the senseless meaning of “honor,” as well as moments when his Falstaff pretends to be deaf, deludedly asserts his youth, and especially his back-and-forth exchanges with Linklater’s Hal, wherein he claims to have slain numerous offenders (which comically increases with further elaboration) or pretends to be the king (who would ideally be congratulatory of Falstaff’s efforts), are sights and sounds to behold.
A well-developed arc in “Henry IV” — predominantly in Part I — is that Falstaff, an amoral carouser, has taken Hal under his wanton wing, misguiding him. Suffice it to say, there is nothing more awesomely absurd than to see a prince take tips from a miscreant. It works gloriously and the chemistry between Hanks and Linklater is a boisterous and brotherly yin-and-yang.
As an aside, at the June 13th performance, Hanks had the opportunity to improvise a little bit during an unplanned stoppage in the show. Charging onto the stage with his sword, he uproariously lambasted the crowd in character for going “pee-pee,” threatened to impale the tires of their “carriages,” and good-naturedly indulged an attention-seeking audience member named Frances from Burbank, who had been congratulated that she had “crossed the 405.”
Linklater’s performance is measured and subtle, capable of provoking laughter, and, on the other hand, introspective of a greater calling. His interpretation of the dialogue, too, is unique, in that it feels very relevant and fresh in the modern sense. For example, his quips, inflections, and pauses are relatable and elicit a better understanding of how Shakespeare’s words might be received today. There is, moreover, a playfulness in the brusque tone that Linklater utilizes, but he also rises to the occasion when the play becomes more serious. You can tell that his Hal almost ruefully loves Falstaff, though he also wants his father’s approval. Certainly, there is no scene that strikes a starker sentiment than when, in the finale of the show, Hal reassures his dying father that he will humbly and proudly inherit the crown.
As the title character, Joe Morton is as stately and reputable as can be, his diction of the language commanding attention worthy of an eminent king. His Henry IV is courageously vulnerable, as he is both burdened by the responsibility of being a country’s leader and a wayward young man’s father. Raffi Barsoumian impresses with his kinetic intensity, as Part I’s villain, Hotspur, particularly during a powerful plea to the king to have his brother-in-law, Mortimer, ransomed. At the close of Part I, he and Linklater, along with a bevy of other performers, are doubtlessly authentic in an enthrallingly nail-biting Battle of Shrewsbury, as shields, swords, and spears clash in an intricate choreography put together by Fight Director Steve Rankin.
Furthermore, Harry Groener portrays a decorous Northumberland, but is even more memorable for his mischievously shrieking Justice Shallow. Establishing her mark is also Rondi Reed as Mistress Quickly, who shares an adorable scene with Hanks, whereupon her persona demands that his Falstaff be arrested on funds owed and for not marrying her as he promised. Another standout is Emily Swallow, who makes for an undeterred Lady Percy and a wildly fun Doll Tearsheet.
Overall, when it’s all said and done, even though much of the audience may end up coming for the cross-generational appeal of Tom Hanks, a verifiable master of his craft, and one who sincerely gives everything he has to Falstaff, the other actors incontrovertibly hold their own as well. The result is one that Shakespeare himself would’ve exceedingly enjoyed watching by smiling, laughing, and being deeply moved all the way through.
Important Note: In a tremendous gesture, the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles has hired and trained 34 United States veterans to assist with the production of “Henry IV.”
For more information, and to purchase tickets to “Henry IV,” please visit shakespearecenter.org