Just before the June 9 performance of “Henry IV” at the Japanese garden on the Veterans Affairs’ West Los Angeles campus, actor Michael Chiklis (“The Shield”) called himself a “theater rat,” saying that “Shakespeare was my first love, and if there’s Shakespeare happening, especially outdoors in the summer, I’m completely in — with both feet.
“I love Shakespeare in the park, and why shouldn’t we have it here in Los Angeles?” he said. “This is the greatest outdoor-indoor living space in the country. … In New York, the mosquitoes eat us up, but here there’s no excuse.”
“Saturday Night Live” veteran Martin Short continued on the theme. “This is the greatest idea in the world,” he said. “This is something that should happen every, every summer. Why should New York just own this idea? It should be right here.”
Amid some of the legendary Bard’s most enthusiastic supporters, the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles celebrated the VIP opening night of “Henry IV.” Following a casual pre-show picnic, theater-goers adjourned to outdoor grandstands to take in the revered classic under the stars.
Staged by Tony Award-winning director Daniel Sullivan, SCLA’s production combines Shakespeare’s “Henry IV Part 1” and “Henry IV Part 2” into a single play. No small-time presentation, this version stars two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks as Shakespeare’s beloved comic character “Falstaff,” plus noted actors Joe Morton (the Emmy Award winner who played Rowan Pope on “Scandal”), Hamish Linklater, Harry Groener and Rondi Reed.
SCLA’s founder and executive artistic director Ben Donenberg said he believes there’s a big audience for Shakespeare, which is now bigger, given the stellar cast. “It’s amazing when I look at the ZIP Code breakdown of the ticket buyers,” he said. “I can see people are coming from all over the world.”
In the midst of a revolt against King Henry IV, a more important drama is taking place between the king and his son Prince Hal, first seen as an irresponsible young man about to play a trick on the larger-than-life Sir John Falstaff. The play then tracks the young man as he transforms into the heroic future King Henry V.
Familiar faces punctuated the by-invitation pre-show gathering, many of them actors having participated in the organization’s annual Simply Shakespeare benefit, which consists of impromptu readings of Shakespeare’s works. Hanks and wife Rita Wilson have been the hosts of the affair since 1990.
Those present on Saturday included Wilson, Chiklis, Short, Finn Wittrock and Lily Rabe (“American Horror Story”), Judith Light (“Transparent”), Sam Waterston (“Law & Order”), Glenn Howerton (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”), New York’s Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis and retired Rear Adm. Tim Sullivan of the U.S. Coast Guard.
“This is such a magical evening,” said Rabe before seeing Linklater play Prince Hal. (She and Linklater have a 16-month-old daughter.) A Tony nominee herself for “Merchant of Venice,” in which she starred opposite Al Pacino, Rabe said, “I prefer doing Shakespeare to anything,” adding, “aside from being a mother.”
Light said she came because of her love for Linklater, Hanks and Shakespeare, adding, “This is also for the veterans, and that makes it really special.”
Said Howerton, “We’re glad somebody is finally creating a home, and hopefully a company of actors, who can perform Shakespeare in L.A.”
Waterston said he started his career at the New York Shakespeare Festival. One of his first big parts was having played as Prince Hal opposite Stacy Keach as Falstaff. “One night we did them both [“Henry IV Part 1” and “Henry IV Part 2”] in a row, and they hadn’t been cut. So it was 4 in the morning by the time we were done.”
In speaking to Eustis, we couldn’t resist bringing up the subject of “Hamilton,” which he helped create. “It’s a very Shakespearean show if I may say,” he said, explaining that like Shakespeare, playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda “took the voice of the common people, turned it into verse, and by turning it into verse, elevated it and ennobled both the language and the people speaking it.”
Said Wilson, “When you look at what Shakespeare wrote, the universality and the longevity of his stories, you see not just a reason to be here tonight, but a reason to make sure these plays continue. Shakespeare dealt with human issues, about what is happening right now, what is still relevant, not just what was happening back then in the 16th century.”
“Henry IV” continues through July 1 with ticket prices ranging from $49 to $189; premium seats up to $500; and free tickets available for veterans and active members of the U.S. armed forces.
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Where: The Japanese Garden on the West Los Angeles VA campus, 229 Patton Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; ends July 1
Info: (213) 481-2273, www.shakespearecenter.org