Supporters of the Shakespeare Center of LA for 25 years and counting, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were looking forward to performing opposite each other in Dan Sullivan’s production of “Henry IV,” Wilson shared with Variety at the opening night celebration of the play on Saturday.
But prior to rehearsals starting, which artistic director Ben Donenberg relayed were six days a week for eight hours a day for five weeks, Wilson had to bow out of the role of Mistress Quickly.
“I had another project, an independent, that I was attached to. Financing was good and fell out, good and fell out, until finally financing happened but only in a very specific timeframe. Because that project predated the play, I felt obligated to keep my word,” Wilson explained.
Tony-winner Rondi Reed replaced her in the role, alongside castmembers Joe Morton as the titular king, Hamish Linklater as Prince Hal, Harry Groener as Northumberland, and Hanks as Sir John Falstaff in his L.A. stage debut.
But Wilson, who first fell in love with Shakespeare while studying at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) and particularly after seeing a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” starring Paul Scofield and Diana Quick at the National Theatre in London, was quick to note that she and Hanks hope to do another Shakespeare production together in the future — perhaps in a circumstance where she could play the role of Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew.”
“Always. We would love to do something,” she said. “This was kind of sad because we did want to do this together, but timing just didn’t work out.”
Hanks and Wilson have hosted and participated in SCLA’s “Simply Shakespeare,” a one-night benefit where they have brought in friends like Martin Short, who was in attendance at the outdoor venue of the Japanese Garden on the West LA VA Campus, and Jason Alexander to read Shakespeare scripts and do a “loose interpretation,” as Wilson said, of the text accompanied by musical guests like Ben Harper, Bette Midler, Paul McCartney, and Brian Wilson.
“‘Simply Shakespeare’ is really fun because you start in the morning and you do it at night. We have the script and then we go off it. It goes crazy,” Short said.
But Wilson’s original involvement with SCLA came with her Equity card. “I did a production of ‘As You Like It’ in 1984 or 1985 and I’ve been with them ever since,” she said.
“Henry IV” was also a reunion for director Dan Sullivan and many of the performers including Hanks, Linklater, Morton, and Groener. “We sent invitations to ask these actors to come in and read or talk to Dan,” Donenberg said. “In many instances, Dan already knew these actors and worked with them before. He was very careful about who he chose to make a really good ensemble.”
A condensed version of both parts of “Henry IV” where “you get two plays in one” as the choice of production came from both Hanks and Sullivan, according to Donenberg.
“Dan and Tom chose the play together. It was a really fun conversation because when Dan proposed it to Tom, Tom thought: ‘Falstaff? I’d never really imagined myself as Falstaff. I’d have to wear a fat suit.'”
Donenberg added that choosing “Henry IV” was a “first” for both Hanks and Sullivan, as “Tom wanted a really good challenge” and “Dan had never done ‘The Henry’s.'”
Board member Alan Friedenthal also noted that Hanks expressed interest in Orson Welles’ cult film “Chimes at Midnight,” in which Welles plays Falstaff in a conglomerate screenplay of Shakespeare’s “Richard II;” “Henry IV, Part I;” “Henry IV, Part II;” and “Henry V.”
In order to distill Parts I and II, Sullivan highlighted the father and son relationship. “It’s Joe and Hamish [Henry IV and Prince Hal], but also Falstaff is like a father figure to Hal, too.” Joe is one kind of father, and Falstaff is a very different kind of father figure. Dan really wanted to focus on that arc as we watch Hal grow up,” Donenberg said.
As the play additionally underscores the war and the military, SCLA’s involvement with the West LA VA Campus holds special significance, especially considering that 34 veterans and soldiers were hired and trained to work on all aspects of production.
“They did the landscaping, the lights, the costumes, the scenery, you name it. The play is particularly so resonant because it’s about wars, and they’re all soldiers — Hal, Falstaff, Joe [Henry IV] — dealing with the issues they confront when they go to war. They say ‘the medium is the message,’ and here the venue is part of the message of the play,” Donenberg said.
The veterans were also on-hand opening night working on the crews for sound, lights, stage, and props backstage, as “this is their summer job,” according to Donenberg.
Fully integrated in the company, the veterans shared a meet-and-greet with the actors on the first day, Donenberg reminisced.
“We all stood in a big circle, saying our names and what our roles were in the show. Tom would say: ‘Tom Hanks. I’m an actor. I’m going to play Falstaff.’ And each of the veterans would say: ‘My name is Josh Valdez. I served in Iraq. I’m infantry military, army, marine, etc.”
Donenberg continued: “It was a really nice moment where everybody met each other. It allowed everyone to become a company and community.”
Michael Chiklis, Judith Light, Lily Rabe, Finn Wittrock, Matt Letscher, and Sam Waterston were also in attendance to celebrate the opening of “Henry IV.”
Evening performances of “Henry IV” run Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. at the Japanese Garden on the West LA VA Campus from June 5 to July 1.