Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
Henry IVThe Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles
In fifteenth-century England, King Henry IV (Joe Morton) is beset on all sides. He's not only fighting off incursions from Scotland and Wales but also dealing with incipient rebellion from the nobility, especially from the fractious young warrior Hotspur (Raffi Barsoumian). The thing that bothers him the most, however, is the fact that the heir to his throne, Hal (Hamish Linklater), is wasting his life in the company of thievish riffraff, most notably the dissipated yet charismatic John Falstaff (Tom Hanks). As war approaches, Hal must decide which "father" to follow, with the future of the kingdom depending on his choice.
Hanks is so at ease with playing Falstaff it seems he must have been acting in Shakespeare plays for a long time, and the fact that this is not so makes his superb performance here rather amazing. It's not surprising that he'd nail the role's surplus of humor (although getting audiences to laugh at 400-year-old jokes is a not unimpressive feat), but it's a pleasure to see how skillfully he delivers Shakespeare's famously tricky prose. Hanks' likable film persona smooths over Falstaff's sharper edges, making him more of a delightful rogue than an actual miscreant, but he also captures the character's pathos in the second half, as Hal abandons him and mortality beckons.
Linklater excels as Hal, his background performing Shakespeare clear in his ease with the text. He gives the most three-dimensional performance of the production, delivering in both humorous and dramatic moments (his imitation of Hotspur is a comedic highlight), and makes the difficulty of Hal's choice between free will and destiny manifest. My only quibble is that he seems to make Hal's frustration with Falstaff more prominent than his affection, which diminishes the drama of Hal's eventual betrayal, but this doesn't really hurt the show.
Morton fares a bit less well as the titular monarch, seeming to struggle with some lines and adopting a technique of rushing through the dialogue that was only partly successful. However, he does very well in his final scene, in which his love for his son is severely tested. Barsoumian brings fierce energy to his performance as Hotspur, raising the dramatic stakes of every scene he's in. Josh Clark gets to flex several acting muscles with the simmering anger of Worcester and the giggling malice of the Chief Justice, and Harry Groener is memorably fine as the well-meaning if deluded Justice Shallow.
Daniel Sullivan's direction manages to keep the story clear and engaging, even with the compression of two plays into one. His use of the actual forest behind the stage (it's an outdoor production), along with Trevor Norton's effective lighting design, belies the largely bare set to create the feeling of a country in conflict.
There's something special about seeing a play like this created by so many talented people and done so well. It's a somewhat rare treat, and isn't to be missed.
Henry IV, through July 1, 2018, at the Japanese Garden on the West Los Angeles VA Campus, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles CA. Tickets and info are available at www.shakespearecenter.org.
The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles presents Henry IV by William Shakespeare. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Lighting Designer, Trevor Norton; Scenic Designer, Ralph Funicello; Sound Designer, Drew Dalzell; Costume Designer, Holly Poe Durbin.