Before “Big,” before “Bachelor Party” — heck, before even “Bosom Buddies” — Tom Hanks studied theater at Chabot College and performed three seasons in the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, walking the boards in “Hamlet” (though not as Hamlet, alas). But that was all more than 40 years ago, and so much has happened since that it may as well be a different Hanks — one with two Oscars and a formidable serious-actor reputation to his credit — who tackles the tragicomic role of Falstaff in the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ presentation of “Henry IV,” making what is billed as his “Los Angeles stage debut.”
The show itself — technically two separate history plays, mercifully condensed into a single three-hour marathon that, frankly, could stand to be shorter still — continues to be performed due not to any particular interest in its eponymous monarch but as a credit to Falstaff, by far the most amusing in Shakespeare’s great panoply of characters, popular enough that he appears in three of his plays. Wisely, director Daniel Sullivan (who has mounted no fewer than 10 Shakespeare in the Park productions, adapting well to the outdoor setting of the VA’s Japanese Garden) hacks away at the political speeches and which-troops-are-needed-where strategy talk without tightening so much as a notch on the fulsome belt of Falstaff’s stage time.
That makes for an evening that, in addition to now opening and closing with the infamous vulgarian, essentially alternates between dry history and outrageous comedy — featuring more creatively worded fat jokes than political correctness would permit any contemporary writer to serve up. The zingers fly so fast and free that one would swear this was where roast master Armando Iannucci found the inspiration for his insult-driven White House satire “Veep.” Shakespeare scholars aside, few remember “Henry IV” as being nearly so mirthful as it is presented here, although in Hanks’ hands (and under Sullivan’s stewardship), the unexpectedly hilarious history plays prove a welcome opportunity for the star to re-embrace both the Bard and the broadly comedic roots of his early career.
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Until now, virtually all of Hanks’ success has been achieved on-screen, where he has come as close to any at mastering the art of playing to the camera. The slightest furrow of the brow, an almost imperceptible tightening around the eyes, and the capacity to make them water ever so discreetly — these are the signatures of an actor who understands the power of the close-up. So what happens when you take that away from him, swaddle him in double the fat-suit padding of your typical department-store Santa, and turn him loose onstage?
The answer, in a word, is magic. Hanks must be hiding somewhere beneath the bushy gray beard, extravagantly Gandalfian hairpiece, and pumpkin-pot-belly corpulence, but the transformation is more complete than any of his CG aliases (whether “Toy Story’s” Woody or the five mo-cap characters he played in “The Polar Express”) and so convincing that we may as well be discovering an entirely new actor. It’s not that Hanks has been rendered unrecognizable — for it’s clearly him under all that blubber — but he adopts a body language that befits the drunken buffoon, stumbling on stage in a sweat-stained tunic, goblet swilling in his ham-hock fist, to hoist his ample posterior on the king’s throne, until such time as Henry IV (Joe Morton) enters to assume his rightful place there.
Compared to the relatively conversational-sounding delivery of the other actors, the king’s speech sounds positively, well, Shakespearean on Morton’s lips (an actor whose career has taken him from starring in “The Brother From Another Planet” to a distinguished turn on ABC’s “Scandal”): In his opening monologue, the word “opposed” assumes three syllables here and two there, so as to suit the iambic pentameter, while modern audiences struggle to make sense of all that verse. Henry IV has much on his mind, hatching plans for religious crusades to Jerusalem (where he believes it is his destiny to die) while faced with rebellion at home from Henry Percy (stage-trained Raffi Barsoumian earns the character’s “Hotspur” nickname with his cocky swagger and spraying plosives).
One doesn’t need a full recap from a review, though it’s worth pointing out that this dense first scene sets up the king’s concern that his son, Prince Hal (Hamish Linklater, who has played Hamlet), is undeserving to succeed him. “O that it could be proved / That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged / In cradle-clothes” good-for-nothing Hal for “so blest a son” as Hotspur, distresses the monarch, establishing how much Hal must change in order to convince his father that he deserves the throne. (Henry IV hardly appears in the two plays that bear his name, though his best scene comes moments before his death, when he sees his son with crown in hand and acknowledges that he is ready to bear its uneasy burden.)
The foil, of course, is Falstaff, who so amply embodies the degenerate company Hal keeps at the play’s outset — an opportunistic fool who has hitched his fortunes to the future king but who leads him astray with his heavy drinking and whoremongering ways. Falstaff may seem harmless, but he threatens to ruin Hal’s reputation, as in the show’s best set-piece — one that brilliantly incorporates the lightly forested hill behind Ralph Funicello’s open-arched stage — when he orchestrates a highway robbery, only to have the loot stolen from him by Hal, in a cruel prank to see how the great inflater will embellish the story. Falstaff does not disappoint, and Hanks shines as he spins lies so extravagant even Homer would be humbled, making it clear why Hal likes to keep this sad, sack-loving loser around.
The shadow of Orson Welles looms large over this role, though Hanks has gone his own way with it. He’s a more likable actor, which in turn makes some of Falstaff’s shenanigans (including his attempt to claim credit for vanquishing Hotspur, after playing dead on the battlefield) easier to forgive. In casting Hanks, there’s a real risk that “Henry IV” will become “Falstaff,” the way Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight” did, but Linklater is strong enough to keep him from running away with the show — or maybe he simply steals it back from Falstaff, the way Hal does after the robbery.
These two actors are well matched, as proven by the scene in which they take turns posing as the king, trading affectionate insults in the process. The second half of “Henry IV” proves far less satisfying (Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson, was initially supposed to play Mistress Quickly, a novelty that surely would have enlivened Part 2), giving Hanks and Linklater less time together in the lead-up to Hal’s coronation and Falstaff’s ill-gotten fate. But when the Lord Chief-Justice quips, “God send the prince a better companion!” and Falstaff retorts, “God send the companion a better prince!” it’s hard to imagine a better pair for these two parts, at least as far as Shakespeare in Los Angeles is concerned.