I know I’m the odd one out but watching Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’s “Henry IV” on June 8, I was not nearly as impressed as other reviewers have been. I felt the production was uneven, that the actors were not completely connecting with one another, and while there were moments achieving some Shakespearean heights, generally it felt like the ensemble had not quite yet gelled.
The big draw, of course, is Tom Hanks as Falstaff, the fat, drunken, bawdy reprobate who pals around with Prince Hal (Hamish Linklater), bilking the local tavern owner while seducing her to reduce his bill. Hanks is funny, solid and captures much of the bloated boastfulness of this big buffoon, but I had a hard time getting past the fact that it was Tom Hanks I was watching. And I am truly one of his biggest fans. Throughout this production I also missed the hearing the poetic rhythms, rhymes and iambic pentameter Shakespeare is known for.
The two parts of Henry IV have been combined into one here, and on a lovely summer’s evening in Los Angeles, it’s no hardship to sit outdoors in the wooded setting of the VA’s Japanese Garden in cushioned seats to see a top-tier troupe of actors put on a play…even if it is three and a half hours long.
Joe Morton, who stands out in my mind as one of the most admirable actors working on stage, screen and TV today, plays King Henry and he bears the majesty well.
Hamish Linklater as his son, Prince Hal, who hangs out in the tavern and engages in some questionable hijinks under Falstaff’s influence, had some good moments, especially with Joe Morton in Act II. But I wasn’t feeling Falstaff and Hal truly relating.
Shakespeare Center of LA does really important work. Hanks and wife Rita Wilson, longtime supporters, have gone all in with the company, which hires veterans, works with Santa Monica College vets involved in the theatre technical production program and gives free tickets to vets and active members of the military; I don’t want to take a single thing away from these noble efforts.
But a couple of years ago in this same space, I was magically transported by a cast of non-stars who brought “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to such brilliant life that I was expecting more this time.
While others have given this production an A grade, I’d rank it as a B. But decide for yourself. Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles presents Henry IV through July 1. Find out more here: https://henryiv.org.
SECOND SEX REDUX
Once upon a time, in a civilization far, far away (Ancient Greece), there were playwrights who wrote about the issues of the day, expecting their audiences to understand the references to contemporary events, and passing moral judgments on the action by means of a chorus. In fact, drama, comedy and tragedy were born in Greece, as was democracy. Some of this plays out in “Lysistrata Unbound” at the Odyssey Theatre.
War has been part of the history of mankind since its beginnings; but what is war, why is necessary, and what’s it really for? In “Lysistrata,” a comedy by Aristophanes produced in 411 BCE during a war between Athens and Sparta, the title character organizes a strike on sex until all wars end.
But in “Lysistrata Unbound,” the newest Odyssey Theatre Ensemble production in collaboration with Not Man Apart-Physical Theatre Ensemble, written and reinterpreted by Cuban-American playwright Eduardo Machado, the comedy has become tragic and the message more hard-hitting, less satirical.
Brenda Strong is Lysistrata and she is regal; a woman older than her peers, she has lost her father, her brother, her husband and now her son to war. She refuses to bury her son’s body and is disrupting society with her refusal, antagonizing the men.
A brutal captain, Adeimantus (is this where the word “adamant” comes from?), performed very bullishly by Vito d’Ambrosio, had been put in charge of Lysistrata’s son by his father, to be educated in the ways of war – and male sexual love, something that is supposed to stop once the boy grew a beard. In this case, it didn’t; so Lysistrata’s refusal to bury her son is making him rabid with rage over her lack of concern for her son’s honor.
Meanwhile, she wishes to find the way to end war, which she determines is about nothing more than male ego. She persuades her fellow wives—all but one—and soon, the courtesans in town, to keep the men at bay.
In short, they upset the order and there is a price to pay. Lysistrata is locked away once, then rescued by her lady friends, but is not lucky the second time around.
Not Man Apart is a physical theatre company, and while in other productions of theirs I’ve seen much acrobatics, here there is more choreography, with bare chested men and fully clothed women dancing, fighting and loving, all performed in movement and with words.
I applaud the effort but think that there is a naivete in such simple suggestions as male ego driving war. Timing wise, the “me-too” movement will find a corollary in “Lysistrata Unbound,” but patriarchy and male dominance are as potent today as they were then.
“Lysistrata Unbound” will run through August 4 at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in West L.A., which is co-producing the piece. Details can be found here: www.OdysseyTheatre.com
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.