Credit: Craig Schwartz

In the Shakespearean canon, there are roles that loom large as checkpoints in actors’ careers — Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Sir John Falstaff, the fat knight that Shakespeare (and reportedly Queen Elizabeth herself) loved so well he wrote him into three plays, Henry IV, Parts One and Two and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

He’s a mercurial creature — an overweight clown with a fondness for women and drink who at turns is hysterically funny, a hyperbolic jester, frighteningly drunk, egotistical, and in the end, possesses genuine fatherly affection. It is these features that make him perhaps a more demanding role to play than more marquee characters like Hamlet and Macbeth, who in essence offer up a slow descent into madness set on by grief and ambition respectively.

In the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ production of Henry IV, a merging of both parts one and two into one slightly bloated tale, Tom Hanks tackles the role with a particular relish and delight that has been lacking from some of his more intense onscreen roles of late. Hanks is, after all, the heir apparent to Jimmy Stewart — the aw shucks, everyman who Americans just can’t get enough of. For this reason, Hanks’ acting has often been underestimated, especially in recent years when his last Oscar nomination came in 2001, and he’s played a succession of good guys just trying to do right by their country. We choose to see Hanks the movie star in his work now rather than the deft hand of a gifted actor who won back-to-back Academy Awards in the mid-’90s.

But Henry IV provides a platform for Hanks that permits him range and evident glee, as he flits through a cavalcade of double-speaking monologues and physical sight gags. Trussed up in a fat suit and a stringy white wig, Hanks loses himself in the role, so much so that he does the seemingly impossible — makes you forget you’re watching a movie star do Shakespeare and allowing you to sink into the action, enjoying the comedic antics that attend his every appearance on stage.

His physical comedy is genius, whether he’s struggling to raise himself from a bench or taking credit for killing an already dead man. With a single raise of his eyebrow or the drooping of his lips in mock disbelief and outrage, he has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. Hanks has always been a gifted physical comedian, a man able to hilariously channel his sense of wide-eyed mischief through every nerve ending, and it’s a rare treat to see him indulging in that side of himself.

Credit: Craig Schwartz

But what makes Hanks’ Falstaff so special, a Falstaff for the ages who outshines any I’ve ever seen in the role, is that he never loses his heart. In some actors’ hands, Falstaff’s thievery and drunkenness can feel sinister — an out-of-control wastrel on the verge of something more menacing. But Hanks makes Falstaff not only a lovable rogue but also a warm-hearted father figure to Hamish Linklater’s Prince Hal. Yes, he’s a thief and a drunk, who accepts bribes from wealthy draft dodgers, but Hanks’ Falstaff is so much more than a clown or a punch line. He’s a fully-realized human being, a bad influence with a good soul who offers Hal and audiences an intoxicating warmth and lust for life. His pure-hearted joy in his carousing and his evident affection for Hal stand in stark contrast to Joe Morton’s imposing, duty-focused King Henry, the father Hal can never seem to please. Underneath the layers of drunken mischief and the literal encasement of the fat suit, you can sense the beating of Falstaff’s heart and the palpable love he holds for Hal, making the play’s final moments truly haunting.

While Hanks is the main attraction here, he’s amply assisted by a talented ensemble, with every member of the cast getting a chance to shine as the play volleys between drunken antics and more serious themes of rebellion, kingship, and violence. At 41, Hamish Linklater might seem an unusual choice to play the boyish Prince Hal, a young man reluctant to set aside his teenage mischief for the dour responsibilities of the crown. But he nails the role, offering a Hal who is clearly wrestling with the anxiety of his position. Linklater instills in Hal a constant restlessness, a simmering, pervasive worry that lingers just under the surface, tainting the joy and release of his thieving and carousing. His deft hand with Shakespeare’s verse is also a marvel; delivering lines with a cadence and clarity that makes the Bard’s dense prose feel contemporary and immediate.

Hal is perhaps the trickiest role here, needing to transition from a fun-loving prankster into an imposing regal king. Linklater makes the weight of that evolution present from his first lines, lending Hal an uncertainty that beautifully speaks to the lost boy struggling to win his father’s approval and find his way toward being a king. In the second act, when he inherits the crown, he transforms before our very eyes in a marvelous bit of staging from director Daniel Sullivan. Looking nervously in the mirror, he practices addressing his subjects, gingerly placing the crown atop his head, but by the time he turns around, enrobed in ermine and speaking to a crowd, he has found his footing and feels every inch the king who will lead his men once more unto the breach in Henry V.

Credit: Craig Schwartz

The production is also a marvelous argument for the effectiveness of simplicity in Shakespearean staging. The set, designed by Ralph Funicello and built by veterans in the Shakespeare Center’s partnership with the VA, is a spare wooden frame, surrounded by the hilly backdrop of its garden setting. Sullivan stages the action with depth and thoughtfulness, extending far back into the bushes of the hill, making you really feel you have been swept onto an English battlefield at moments and then returning you to the warm glow of a tavern with a spare table and chair. The language and the acting dominate, taking you into Shakespeare’s world without any ornate set pieces, projections, or other expensive trappings.

Henry IV is a strange play — something that is not really whole when divided, as written, into Parts One and Two, but that feels overlong when smashed together. As Shakespeare goes, it’s the most lacking in female representation, with only three female characters appearing in a few brief scenes. But it’s also a powerful examination of father-son relationships, the cost of duty, and the painful business of growing up — all of which is explored with a careful reverence for Shakespeare’s intentions in this production. That reverence exists in a balancing act with Falstaff’s outré, larger-than-life persona offered with full-hearted pleasure from Tom Hanks at the top of his game. It’s Hanks’ Los Angeles stage debut, but for the sake of us all, I hope it’s not his last theatrical outing in the City of Angels. A-