Theater Review: Henry IV by Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles

Lisa and I headed down to Los Angeles to catch Henry IV, presented by the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles in the Japanese Garden at the Veterans Administration complex in Westwood.

The big draw for the production was the announcement that Tom Hanks (who along with his wife Rita Wilson are major forces behind the SCLA) would be playing Falstaff in a conflation of the two Henry IV plays. They’ve built a temporary outdoor stage in the VA complex and it’s beautiful. So you’ve got Shakespeare, summer, outdoors, great setting. But really, the vast majority of the capacity 650-seat theater was there to see Hanks.

And he was very good.

You hear a “but” coming, don’t you?

I don’t know.

I’ve read many of the reviews. Mostly raves. And I don’t get it.

Don’t get me wrong. The show, for what it was, was good. Very nice. Hanks, as I said, was very good as Falstaff. You could see him (both the character and the actor) having one helluva time.

But the rest of the show just didn’t do it for me. For me, the performances ranged from excellent (Rondi Reed was–quite possibly–the best Mistress Quickly I’ve seen on stage) to serviceable (Harry Groener, as Northumberland, Justice Shallow, and ensemble, was a turns intense and silly) to disappointing to awful (but I’ll not name names).

Part of the problem, at least as far as I see it, resides in the Venn-diagram intersection of the choice of play, actor, and direction. Unless you’re going to radically rework the play(s), these two plays are NOT about Falstaff nor even the titular Henry IV. No, this is Prince Hal’s rise. Even Shakespeare seems to have known this–in the Second Part, he keeps Hal and Falstaff apart, as if worrying that the fat rogue would overpower the play and steal the focus. So by casting Hanks as Falstaff, you create the expectation in the audience (despite the title) that this is going to be about him. And in some attempt NOT to seem like a bait-and-switch, they’ve jettisoned quite a bit of non-Falstaff material (if you were expecting to see Glendower, keep walkin’). This wasn’t a radical reworking, though… just a cleave-heave-and-rejoin job. And it doesn’t work.

At least it didn’t for me.

And not for Lisa, either; in fact–for someone who pretty much loves each and every show we see–she may have liked it even less than I did.

Did this Daniel Sullivan-directed production fall prey to the dreaded “Museum Shakespeare” malady against which I rant on a rather consistent basis? No. But it flirted with it. Hell, it have have even given it a lap-dance or two.

Am I sorry I saw it? Not at all. I saw a really good Falstaff. I just didn’t see a really good play.

And the crowd loved it. You might, too.

The show runs through Sunday.

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