Tom Hanks will make his LA stage debut as Shakespeare's Falstaff at the West LA VA

Tom Hanks talks with
Tom Hanks talks with "The Frame" host John Horn.
Keith Ladzinski for KPCC

After a nearly 4-year hiatus, Shakespeare is returning to the campus of the West Los Angeles VA, and the production features a familiar Hollywood A-lister in a leading role. 

Starting June 5, Academy Award-winner Tom Hanks will star in 24 performances of ‘Henry IV’ produced by the Shakespeare Center of LA (SCLA) and staged in the VA’s Japanese Garden.
 
Tony Award-winner Daniel Sullivan has been tapped to direct, and Hanks’ wife Rita Wilson will also play a leading role.

Founder and Artistic Director Ben Donenberg told KPCC Hanks will step into the boots of Sir John Falstaff, a beloved comic character, in a play that condenses 'Henry IV, Part 1' and Part 2.

"This is the first time Tom Hanks will appear in a fully staged theatrical production in the city of Los Angeles," Donenberg said.

“A lot of people who are big Shakespeare buffs say that Falstaff may very well be Shakespeare’s greatest character. He’s very funny, heartwarming, and complex,” Donenberg said. “He presents himself as a soldier in battle, but some of his actions are questionable. The audience gets to wonder about the core motivation for becoming a soldier, and what is honor.”

The Shakespeare Center is examining themes presented by Shakespeare’s warriors this year, including readings of Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens. ‘Henry IV’ will be the centerpiece of this exploration.

RETURNING TO THE VA

Over the course of its 32 year history, the Shakespeare Center has staged numerous summer shows in the West LA VA’s Japanese Garden. The performances decamped to Santa Monica College after 2014, part of a wave of leases forced to leave the VA campus after a lawsuit by the ACLU that targeted VA leadership for allowing the land to be misused. 

Companies and organizations that had nothing to do with supporting veterans--like an Enterprise Rent-A-Car location, a Marriott hotel laundry facility and television set storage--were sitting on federal land originally meant to house elderly veterans.

Donenberg said SCLA began hiring veterans to work on their productions through the VA’s vocational rehabilitation programs in the 1990s. That relationship was formalized by the creation of the Veterans in Art program in 2012.

“Our commitment to veterans has been long-standing,” Donenberg said. “We have veterans working backstage on scene construction, costumes, lighting, sound, communications, IT, and box office.” He added veterans working for SCLA also have the option to enroll for free in technical theater training courses at Santa Monica College.

The ACLU lawsuit was settled in 2015, with then-VA Secretary Robert McDonald committing to overhauling the campus and building 1,200 units of permanent supportive housing for veterans.

In 2016, congress granted the VA authority to enter into new leases. The last of the leases deemed to be falling short of the mission of veteran care was terminated in January. UCLA and the private Brentwood School are two organizations that have renegotiated the terms of their land use agreements to include more veteran-centric services.

SCLA now has a 5-year agreement to stage productions in the VA’s Japanese Garden.

“The work that we do depends on people working together harmoniously. Thankfully we’re able to come back and we’re going to be doing some really wonderful work at the VA,” Donenberg said. 

For ‘Henry IV,’ 40 veterans will be hired to help in every level of production. They will engage in hands-on learning from theater professionals and receive mentoring from seven SCLA Veteran Leadership Team members. Veterans will also be employed to build the stage and seating for the intimate outdoor show.

“Partnerships like this one are vital to bringing the vision for this campus to life and to transform it into a vibrant, welcoming, veteran-centric community,” VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System director Ann Brown said in a statement.

Rita Wilson’s connection to the Los Angeles Shakespeare Center goes back to the late 1980s, when the organization was known as Shakespeare Festival/LA. Donenberg recalled Wilson’s performance in the role of Celia in ‘As You Like It.’

“She came in to an open casting call and we hired her. She did an incredible job. Then, on opening night at the Ford Amphitheater in Hollywood, we looked out into the audience and there was Tom Hanks and a bunch of stars,” Donenberg said. “Rita shared with us she was married to Tom Hanks. We had no idea. We were fools.”

Hanks and Wilson also hold an annual reading, Simply Shakespeare, to benefit the non-profit Shakespeare Center. 

WANT TICKETS?

Veterans and active duty servicemembers can sign up here on a first-come, first-served list for complimentary tickets. The Shakespeare Center is providing 2,000 tickets to the military and veteran community free of charge.

The general public can also sign up on a separate list to get the first opportunity to buy tickets. Those go on sale April 23.