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. Hes 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. Its not surprising that hed nail the roles surplus of humor (although getting audiences to laugh at 400-year-old jokes is a not unimpressive feat), but its a pleasure to see how skillfully he delivers Shakespeares famously tricky prose. Hanks likable film persona smooths over Falstaffs sharper edges, making him more of a delightful rogue than an actual miscreant, but he also captures the characters 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 Hals choice between free will and destiny manifest. My only quibble is that he seems to make Hals frustration with Falstaff more prominent than his affection, which diminishes the drama of Hals eventual betrayal, but this doesnt 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 hes 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 Sullivans 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 (its an outdoor production), along with Trevor Nortons effective lighting design, belies the largely bare set to create the feeling of a country in conflict.
Theres something special about seeing a play like this created by so many talented people and done so well. Its a somewhat rare treat, and isnt to be missed.
Henry IV plays at the Japanese Garden on the West Los Angeles VA Campus through July 1, 2018. 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.