Tom Hanks as Falstaff, Joe Morton as King Henry IV and a solid supporting ensemble add up to half a dozen good reasons to see director Dan Sullivan’s staging of Henry IV, now playing in the Japanese Gardens on the West L.A. VA campus through June 24.
Besides these performances, you get to relish some engaging swordplay, spare but effective tech elements at a bucolic outdoor venue, and an ample dose of the Bard’s wit and bawdy humor. On the other hand, the retention of extended expository scenes relating to 15th-century politics, along with glaring missteps in the casting of two major roles, siphon some of the lifeblood from the story.
Among other themes, Henry IV is a story of generational divide, a conflict between a traditional authority figure — a kingly king who secured his status through battle — and his prodigal progeny, Prince Hal (Hamish Linklater), a privileged kid who prefers drinking and messing about with ne’er-do-wells to practicing his princely duties. Hal’s profligate way of living is both a public embarrassment and a private source of woe for his dad, who compares him unfavorably with his cousin Hotspur (Raffi Barsoumian), famous for his courage on the battlefield and pretty much everybody’s idea of what a royal prince should be.
The play swings back and forth between its dramatic sequences involving conspiracies, political rivalries and on-the-field battles among rebellious forces and those loyal to Henry, and comedic scenes that showcase the antics of the pot-bellied, unprincipled Falstaff, who lies, steals and cheats friend and foe alike, and is the first to sing his own praises whatever the circumstance. Despite these glaring character flaws, Hal is fond of Falstaff and vice versa; the question mark at the heart of the narrative is whether the future Henry V will ever move past this fundamentally dysfunctional friendship.
Regrettably, one of the production’s weaknesses is Linklater’s rather sparsely developed prince. At times his Hal reminds you of an aging frat boy sowing his oats. That’s fine, except that the thoughtfulness that precipitates this character’s transformation into a wise monarch is nowhere to be discerned. Order and kingship were all part of a moral order in Shakespeare’s day, one that Henry V will be called upon to represent. But while this Hal sometimes does the right thing — he returns to its owners property that Falstaff has stolen, for example — in Linklater’s rendering, you never perceive the intelligence and sensitivity behind the act.
The other much greater performance liability is Barsoumian’s rendering of Hotspur as an empty hothead who literally spits his words. It’s a torrent of language and faux rage that’s all but a case study in how not to play Shakespeare, since there’s no complex humanity behind the portrayal. (This compels the question: Where was director Sullivan when this actor’s scenes were being rehearsed?)
In happy contrast, Morton is terrific as the magisterial Henry IV, a man with both the acumen and confidence to rule. He’s equally good as a frustrated and worried parent who longs for his errant son to measure up. In a play that seeks to define the parameters of true manhood, Morton’s flawed Henry (he did, after all, steal the crown from Richard II) succeeds by example.
This brings us to Hanks, the big-ticket draw, and I’m happy to report that he lives up to all expectations in his Los Angeles stage debut. Costumed into a barrel of a man, his bloviating Falstaff becomes every inch the maddening outrageous clown that Shakespeare must have intended him to be. The funniest moment may be when, in battle, Falstaff collapses and pretends to die before his confused opponent ever touches him with his sword. (The parallel between this character’s gasbag behavior and that of our nation’s narcissistic Bloviator-in-Chief compounds the ironic humor.)
Other notable performances include Rondi Reed in a hilarious turn as Mistress Quickly, Falstaff’s mercurial landlady to whom he owes money, and Harry Groener as Justice Shallow, Falstaff’s carousing buddy from back in the day. Josh Clark and Jeff Marlow as the scheming Worcester and Archbishop, respectively, make an impression, as does Chris Rivera as Hal’s reliable aide, Poins.
The Japanese Garden on the West Los Angeles VA Campus, 229 Patton Ave., L.A. Tue.-Sun., 8 p.m., through July 1. shakespearecenter.org.