'Henry IV': Theater Review

HENRY IV Production Still - Publicity - H 2018
Craig Schwartz
Virtue and vice in equal measure.

Tom Hanks makes his West Coast stage debut as Falstaff in Daniel Sullivan's new production also featuring Joe Morton and Hamish Linklater under the stars at the Japanese Garden on the V.A. campus

At first glance, a fat-suited Tom Hanks might seem a perfect choice to play the "bed-presser, horseback breaker, huge hill of flesh" Sir John Falstaff in the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles production of Henry IV. But while his nice-guy image dovetails with the codger's wit and gregarious charm, it's the latter that's missing from Hanks' portrayal. That choice impacts Falstaff's relationship with Hal at the heart of the history play, converting good-natured ribbing into sharp-elbowed rancor in a production that is likewise uneven.

In a time of political turmoil, King Henry IV (Joe Morton) is forced to defend his throne against a gathering insurgency spearheaded by Sir Henry Percy (Raffi Barsoumian), along with his reluctant uncle, Worcester (Josh Clark). Making matters worse is the general indifference of the king's son Hal (Hamish Linklater), the future Henry V, whose days are spent in taverns amongst lowlifes like Falstaff, an obese old drunk with an intoxicating lust for life.

Hal hardly reveres Falstaff but instead enjoys laughing at him more than laughing with him, as when Hal and Poins (Chris Rivera) disguise themselves to rob the old man and his posse of stolen riches following a highway holdup. In the scene, Hanks got a rise out of the opening-night audience, reenacting the robbery for the benefit of Hal and Poins while systematically inflating the number of attackers he claims to have bravely fought off.

It's one of the production's better moments, played with warmth and good humor that contrast with surrounding scenes between Falstaff and Hal. Affable joshing between the two provides subtext to a greater dysfunction that blossoms into banishment before the final curtain. But in this production, there is more vitriol than love between them from the very beginning. Hanks' Falstaff is manically convivial, less Dionysian archetype than one who sees the writing on the wall. Costume designer Holly Poe Durbin outfits Falstaff with a convincing fat suit and an unkempt silvery mane befitting a vagrant, while clothing the rest of the cast in period-appropriate, early 15th century togs.

Present in three plays and mentioned in a fourth, Falstaff is one of Shakespeare's most enduring creations. He transcended the dramatic stage to the opera hall in 1893, becoming the eponymous subject of Giuseppe Verdi's final opera, and is the subject of what Orson Welles considers his best film, 1967's Chimes at Midnight. What audiences find most endearing in the character, aside from his wit and jovial nature, is his love of life, which is in short supply in Hanks' portrayal, undercutting the dramatic impact of later scenes in which mortality looms large.

A two-time Oscar winner, Hanks made his professional stage debut in 1977 playing Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland, Ohio, where he first met director Daniel Sullivan. The actor went on to enjoy great success in TV and film, waiting until 2013 to make his Broadway debut in Nora Ephron's posthumously produced play Lucky Guy, which earned him a Tony nomination.

We've seen him play a buffoonish criminal in the Coen brothers' The Ladykillers (2004) as well as a menacing hitman in Sam Mendes' The Road to Perdition (2002), but the darker waters of mortality and alienation are not ordinarily associated with Hanks, at least not since his portrayal of AIDS patient Andrew Beckett in 1993's Philadelphia. It's a mood not beyond the actor's abilities, yet nonetheless situated just outside his wheelhouse.

In the aftermath of fight director Steve Rankin's impressive battle scene, Sullivan's unwieldy adaptation combining the play's two parts moves into the second half of its lengthy running time of three hours and 20 minutes. Falstaff and Hal, the heart of the play, have fewer scenes together as new characters take to the stage — Justice Shallow (a hilarious Harry Groener, who doubles as Northumberland), Hal's brother Lancaster (Chris Myers) and Doll Tearsheet (a beguiling Emily Swallow) represent the best elements of a supporting cast that displays various levels of accomplishment.

Mistress Quickly was to be played by Hanks' wife Rita Wilson (who sat in the second row on opening night with stepson Colin Hanks), but while it would have been intriguing to see the couple performing opposite each other, Wilson had to drop out due to a scheduling conflict. Chicago stage veteran Rondi Reed (a Tony winner for August: Osage County) stepped in, bringing expert comedic timing and plaintive humor to the innkeeper of Falstaff's favorite hangout, The Boar's Head.

As Prince Hal, Linklater (whose extensive TV credits include The New Adventures of Old Christine, The Newsroom and Legion) has an extensive background in Shakespeare, which might be why he delivers the production's standout performance. His annoyance with his father and his own inability to hold himself to a higher standard is projected onto Falstaff, a mentor he has come to suspect has little else to teach him. As brash as Hal is, Linklater artfully embodies the inner confusion and frustration of an adolescent burdened by great expectations.

Veteran actor Joe Morton, familiar to most audiences for his Emmy-winning role as Rowan Pope on ABC's Scandal, spent decades in TV and film. In 2016, he returned to the stage to portray comedian-activist Dick Gregory in his one-man show, Turn Me Loose, which opened off-Broadway and stopped at The Wallis in Beverly Hills last fall. Morton began as a New York stage actor and is a welcome sight returning to the boards, presenting a steadfast and fearless Henry IV who will no doubt become even more convincing as the run progresses and his lines come easier to him.

An eight-time Tony nominee who won for 2001’s Proof, Sullivan has directed two Shakespeare plays on Broadway — Julius Caesar, starring Denzel Washington, and The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino and Lily Rabe. The latter was produced by The Public, for whom Sullivan has directed 10 Shakespeare in the Park productions, a number of them also featuring Linklater. His extensive experience working under the stars in the heart of the city has prepared him well for the Japanese Garden, where scenic designer Ralph Funicello's bare platform is backed by minimalist Gothic arches and a forested slope beyond.

In the end, Hal is compelled to put duty first and leave childish ways behind, and so banishes Falstaff. But what happens when the mischief of a drunken night is traded for a bloodsoaked battlefield in defense of an ill-gotten throne? What becomes of honor and courage, terms Falstaff tries to define as he avoids the conflict in cowardly fashion? "What is honour? a word," he decides as he wrestles with his conscience. "Honour is a mere scutcheon." His conclusion provides new perspective on Hal's obligations, leaving the audience to wonder, if only for a moment, whether the old man is right when he warns, "Banish plump Jack and banish all the world."

Venue: West Los Angeles VA Campus Japanese Garden
Cast: Tom Hanks, Joe Morton, Hamish Linklater, Anthony Mark Barrow, Raffi Barsoumian, Josh Clark, Benji Coelho, James Michael Cowan, Harry Groener, Jeff Marlow, Chris Myers, Chris O'Reilly, Alexander Pimentel, Ray Porter, Rondi Reed, Chris Rivera, Emily Swallow, Peter Van Norden, Geoffrey Wade, Time Winters
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Playwright: William Shakespeare, adapted by Daniel Sullivan
Set designer: Ralph Funicello
Costume designer: Holly Poe Durban
Lighting designer: Trevor Norton
Sound designer: Drew Dalzell
Presented by The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles