A month or so ago, I wrote here about an upcoming production of Shakespeare's Henry IV put on by the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles -- and how most notable about it was that making his Los Angeles stage debut, playing the role of Falstaff, was...Tom Hanks. Well, I got my tickets the moment I found out about the show, and last night was the night I went.
I'm not going to give a full review of the evening, but rather some general observations and a few comments. But first things first, which is pretty much the only thing people have wanted to know. So, to get that out of the way --
It was great. Extremely well done. And Hanks was…spectacular. Let's do a thought experiment: picture in your mind Tom Hanks doing the flamboyant, drunken braggart Falstaff as well as you could hope possible. That’s pretty much what you got. It wasn’t a star turn, it was a performance. Full of bravado, but also great subtlety. And generous, not hogging the stage but letting the other actors lead the scene when it was theirs to do so. Not upstaging anyone so that actors speaking had to turn to him for all the attention, but often going downstage himself with his back to the audience to allow the others their full due. But he had plenty of time in the limelight because that's what the role calls for. And in one of the quieter moments, his soliloquy about honor was an absolute gem. Indeed, he played the fat suit SO believably, struggling up stairs all night and lumbering around the stage, often fighting for breath, that you didn't see it as a gimmick, but felt his exhaustive weight.
(Photo credit: Craig Schwartz)
To be clear, I've seen four major reviews of the show, and they all agreed, among them the Los Angeles Times. All were raves. The Times review even began by saying that this was a production that could have gone very wrong -- not just because it was largely actors not known for doing Shakespeare, but also because of how the production edited together both Henry IV plays (Part 1 and Part 2) and trimmed the text from what would have been six hours to 3-1/4 hours -- but that it all worked and wonderfully.
It was also a great venue – outdoors in the Japanese Garden of the West Los Angeles V.A. ground, fairly intimate, seating for only about 600, but (being in a wooded area) you had an actual forest behind the stage which they used to its fullest, particularly for all the battle scenes. So, it was intimate, yet with great expanse.
And it's not just Hanks, but the show has a good supporting cast and high-end director, Daniel Sullivan who has seven Tony Award nominations, winning for the original production of Proof -- and has directed 10 productions for the New York Public Theatre's Shakespeare in the Park. The cast included Hamish Linklater as Prince Hal, who's done quite a bit of Shakespeare, and been in the films The Big Short, Battleship, 42, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, as well a regular on such TV series as Fargo, Legion, and HBO's The Newsroom. Also Joe Morton who played King Henry IV, a regular on the series Scandal, Eureka and Proof, and a semi-regular on The Good Wife, as well as in such movies as Speed and Terminator 2. And a personal favorite, the wonderful Harry Groener, with a long career as a character actor on TV and film (you'd know him instantly), and lots of Broadway credits, and who readers of these pages may recall starred in a world premiere play in Los Angeles I wrote about here, the very dark satire Vicuña, by Jon Robin Baitz (playing the lead character loosely based on Donald Trump running for president -- one of the most bizarre nights I've every had in the theater, seeing it the night after Trump won the 2016 election.)
The performances throughout Henry IV were all strong -- some excellent, though a few didn't bowl me over. I thought Joe Morton was a bit stilted, though he brought much substance and presence to the role, which is critical when you're playing the title character King of England. And Hamish Linklater gave a slightly moodier interpretation as Hal than is usual, but it generally worked well. Harry Groener was great in a dual role -- Henry Percy (the leader of the rebellion, father of Hotspur) and the befuddled comic character Justice Shallow. I also thought Jeff Marlow was standout as the Archbishop and Sir Walter Blunt. (As you can probably figure, there was a lot of doubling up.) And Rondi Reed was exuberant as Mistress Quickly.
(Photo credit: Craig Schwartz)
As I mentioned, the show puts together an edited version of the two Shakespeare plays, adapted by director Sullivan. Perhaps if you're a Shakespeare aficionado or purist, that might be sacrilegious, but it seemed to work well. Part 2 pales a bit to Part 1 when seen together, and probably is better standalone -- it's more elegiac and thoughtful, compared to the adventurous, plot-driven and more-comic Part 1. But put together, it seems to make for a richer evening. What I'm curious about is if the adaptation was done for theatrical reasons, or if it allowed them to tell the Falstaff story more fully, which ultimately let them use Tom Hanks to a far-greater extent than if Henry IV, Part 1 had been done alone.
Sullivan also does something small, but very smart with the staging. Because everyone knows the reason why they're all there, who the audience has come to see, but Falstaff doesn't appear right away, it was likely that the audience would be antsy and not be paying close attention until Hanks finally shows up, risking the distracting of "When will Tom Hanks be onstage??" throwing the balance of the evening off. So, what they've done is have Falstaff rumble out on the empty stage first, alone, and struggle to get into a chair. (It's an amusing bit of stage business.) And then suddenly, with a WHACK, he slams down his mug and begins to sing -- and the ensemble offstage joins in with the madrigal, walking onto the stage as he keeps pounding the mug in relentless rhythm. The song ends, they all stroll off, the audience is Hanks-satisfied, the mood is wonderfully set, and the play begins.
One thing separate from the show itself that I simply can't fully explain is why there were still empty seats. Not many, but that there were any is bewildering. In fact, there still are seats left for the rest of the run, in case you live in L.A. and are interested. (You can check out availability here.) After all, this is Tom Hanks -- as Falstaff -- in a limited, one-month run -- in an intimate venue -- and it got rave reviews. Ticket prices are admittedly high (in part, I think because Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson are on the board of directors of the Shakespeare Center, and one of several reasons he may be doing this is as a fundraiser). But if this was in New York City, and they took out an 1/8-page ad in the "Arts & Leisure" section of the New York Times that Tom Hanks would be appearing as Falstaff in a one-month run of Henry IV, tickets would be gone in three hours. Everyone I've mentioned this to from New York agrees. Part of the reason for ticket availability, too, is...well, that's Los Angeles. People here are not as into theater, and they also wait for reviews. (Though ticket sales were solid before the opening, there was still far more availability than was sane. However, the reviews clearly have helped almost fill it up. But "almost" is so bizarre to me.)
But again, having said all this, let me repeat -- Hanks was great.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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