Tackling both parts of Shakespeare's "Henry IV" in an outdoor staging with a company of actors not primarily known as Elizabethan specialists is a recipe for a long and bumpy night. So it's a credit to the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles for not only averting disaster but getting so much right.
The production, which opened Friday at the Japanese Garden on the West Los Angeles VA campus, stars Oscar winner Tom Hanks as Falstaff and stylish Shakespearean player Hamish Linklater as Prince Hal. But much of its success can be attributed to the smooth direction of Daniel Sullivan, who knows his way around the Bard's comedies, tragedies, histories and romances.
Sullivan directed Linklater in the title role of "Hamlet" at South Coast Repertory in a 2007 production that bit off more than it could digest. But the experience seems to be informing Linklater's introspective, at times strikingly melancholy, portrayal of the pleasure-seeking prince, who cavorts with a dissolute crew in seedy taverns before the cares and burdens of the crown descend upon him.
The most delectable scenes in this sprawling drama, which has been condensed to 3¼ hours (roughly half the length of other productions I've seen), are between Hal and Falstaff. The best of these occurs at the Boar's Head Tavern, hosted by Mistress Quickly, the shabby old flirt played with seductive frazzle by Tony winner Rondi Reed.
Summoned to court in the middle of the night by the king's messenger with news that rebel factions are joining forces, Hal rehearses for the meeting with his surrogate father, Falstaff, his mentor in debauchery and mordant repartee. Linklater's Hal, the color draining from his face as he imagines the paternal rebuke waiting for him, allows Falstaff to distract him from his anxiety in a bit of role-playing that has Falstaff condemning "the son of England" as a purse-taking thief while praising the "goodly portly man" setting such an instructive example for him.
Hanks' Falstaff, padded to resemble a knighted pumpkin (the costumes are by Holly Poe Durbin), doesn't overdo the buffoonery. The performance is writ large, as it is meant to be. Falstaff's stringy gray hair is vainly tossed about. He prances, rubs his belly and bulges his eyes while lining up a quip in his crosshairs. But the dominant note is one of barroom familiarity with the heir to the throne. It's easy to imagine this Falstaff and Hal engrossed in philosophical conversation after everyone has gone to sleep and their jug of sack has been drained dry.
But this Hal has clearly defined limits. When the roles are reversed in their extempore play, Hal excoriates Falstaff as that "villainous abominable misleader of youth." Snapping out of the theater game, he vows that he will eventually banish the old man, who has clasped onto Hal as though he were his winning lottery ticket.
Linklater over-accentuates Hal's somberness. The character no longer seems to take all that much pleasure in sporting with Falstaff. Hal goes through the motions of the deception his buddy Poins (Chris Rivera) has devised to play on Falstaff, who is forced into a hilly wooded area on the VA campus just beyond the stage when the high jinks go into overdrive. The prince finds sour amusement in the way the old lout can talk his way out of any cowardly mischief, but his mind is elsewhere. Linklater appears to let the ending of the play shadow the beginning and middle.
If this interpretation clouds a Shakespearean awareness of what Falstaff has to teach Hal about life (and, relatedly, what portion of his humanity will have to be sacrificed to become England's warrior hero), it clarifies the raw father-son dynamics, which have been strained by the figure of Hotspur (Raffi Barsoumian). One of the Northern rebels, Hotspur (a role Laurence Olivier played with stammering belligerence in one of the drama's most storied productions) possesses a martial temperament so impressive that Henry IV (Joe Morton) can't help wishing at times that he, and not playboy Hal, were his son.
Morton, though a bit unsteady with his lines in the beginning, reveals an aching tenderness in his exasperation over Hal — the love between them growing more urgent as the king's health declines. Interpretively in sync, Morton's Henry IV and Linklater's Hal find strength in softness.
Their emotionalism is in direct contrast with Barsoumian's hurtling Hotspur, who hammers his lines for choleric emphasis. (One of the signs of inexperience in performing Shakespeare is the psychologizing of inflection, where an actor would be better advised to stress the shifts in a character's thinking.)
Barsoumian's Hotspur is more convincing when at home with his wife, Lady Percy (a vivid Emily Swallow). Devoted as she is to her husband, she can't help wondering if he loves battle more than he cares for her. It's a comparison Hotspur would rather skirt, but Barsoumian communicates tremendous feeling in restraint.
The fight between Hal and Hotspur that all but wraps up the first part is stirringly realized. The heroism in the history play belongs to a different era, but the respect Hal shows his rival-turned-enemy raises our estimation of the prince's character.
When not playing dead on the battlefield or scheming for glory by killing an already dead man, Hanks' Falstaff offers piercing ironic commentary on such concepts as honor and valor. The staging sometimes treats these speeches like favorite arias in a beloved opera. The lighting ponderously changes on Ralph Funicello's refreshingly bare wooden set before one of Falstaff's great monologues, but for the most part the production avoids becoming a highlight reel of "Henry IV."
The abbreviation of the plays is more noticeable in the second part, which continues the contrapuntal movement between drama and comedy, royal duty and naughty frivolity. The politics are blurry here, but the comedy crackles, especially in the scenes between Falstaff and Chief Justice (Josh Clark) and later Falstaff and Justice Shallow (Harry Groener), his eccentric old friend with whom he recalls hearing "the chimes at midnight."
The ending of the play, when Hal fulfills the plan he laid out in the beginning, pricks but doesn't draw blood. The fluster of lies Hanks' Falstaff employs as a shield against rejection is touchingly pulled off. But even though Sullivan wisely slows down the final movement, something is lost in the careening through the plot of Part II.
But this is a brave effort, worthy of applause all around. The night air grew chilly Friday. Yet theatergoers seemed rapt by this Shakespearean vision, animated by acting royalty, skilled professionals and game apprentices, all of whom have proved that they can surmount the toughest challenge.
Credit Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles for mirroring the fearlessness of Hotspur, the inimitable swagger of Falstaff and the well-placed confidence of Hal. Local Shakespeare is getting a boost from this noble effort.
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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
Information: (213) 481-2273, www.shakespearecenter.org
Running time: 3 hours, 15 minutes