In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part one, Prince Hal hangs out with Sir John Falstaff and various lowlifes at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap, a street in central London. They swill sack. It is 1399.
In Herbert Siguenza’s post-apocalyptic take on Shakespeare’s play, Prince Hal is “El Henry.” He hangs out with Fausto, a “fat vato,” “Chicano Elephant Man,” and “Lord of the Stolen Hubcaps,” in a San Diego saloon. They swill cervezas and Cuervos. It is 2045.
San Diego is no more. When the banks crashed in 2032, the “Gringo Exodus” began. This was “white flight” on such a big scale that “La Jolla began to look like Chula Vista.” The gringos took all the technology east of the Rockies.
At the same time, the “Narcos” took over Mexico, which drove hundreds of thousands across the border — without La Migra to worry about. San Diego is now Aztlan City. It has a “Barrio Hotspur” and “Abnormal Heights.” Mount Hope Cemetery is now “No Hope.” And boulevards have been named for Richard Ramirez and the Menendez brothers.
The worries now are lethal factions, a chaos of diversities (Chicanos, Mexicans, and Hispanics, the latter “look and act like they’re white”), and, most of all, fresh water.
El Hank — a cross between King Henry IV and Vito Corleone — heads one of the five cliques. Sure he runs guns and drugs. But come on. He means well, even promises free water for the people. If only his borracho son, El Henry, would stop slumming with “the ho’s and his bro’s.”
El Henry is a masterful tapestry. It runs the gamut from knockabout farce to heightened poetry to life and death struggles. At the same time, the script is eerily faithful to the original. Shakespeare’s King faced the same conditions as El Hank: a dismantled kingdom, uprisings from every quarter, and guilt about his legitimacy as a ruler.
El Henry must close this Sunday. It deserves a much longer life. It’s by far Siguenza’s best play.
At the same time, it’s hard to imagine it staged anywhere else. El Henry is part of the La Jolla Playhouse’s hugely popular Without Walls series. These site-specific shows make theater out of gardens, interiors of cars, and, for El Henry, a vacant lot at SILO in Makers Quarter (“a transformative gathering space in the neighborhood of East Village…born to serve the collaborative community”).
Scenic and projection designer Ian Wallace filled the lot with wet sand, a platform of video screens (they look like a junk heap but actually work), walls of corrugated tin, and graffiti (one to the side says “LJP + SDR” — La Jolla Playhouse plus San Diego Rep, since it’s a co-production by the two companies).
Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ splendid costumes – especially those floor length, black leather coats – come off the Mad Max rack. Jeninifer Setlow’s lighting, Missy Bradstreet’s wigs, and Bruno Louchjouarn’s bass-inflected original music make strong contributions.
Director Sam Woodhouse has encouraged a muscular, vocally electric style. His staging has such robust physicality you could follow the story without knowing Spanish or English.
But then you’d miss Siguenza’s often hilarious verbal choices, and his/Fausto’s immortal sermon on “honor.”
John Padilla’s excellent El Hank excels with assertion and conflict. Roxanne Carrasco takes stage as Mayor Villa Allegre (whose hero is Ronald Reagan) and the fiery Chiqui and scorches every scene.
And having Lakin and Kinan Valdez playing El Henry and El Bravo (the Hotspur figure) is like cheating. Sons of the legendary Luis Valdez, founder of El Teatro Campesino, the Valdez brothers could not, repeat not, give more committed performances.
The SILO space works, in part, because it’s in a currently developing part of East Village. Helicopters roar overhead, the police department’s just down the street, and homeless camp nearby. Along with having to load in everything, the proudction had a unique problem.
A two-story apartment’s just behind the southern wall. The upstairs resident works nights. While he’s gone, he plays old time rock and roll songs for the homeless.
Which interfered, of course, with the show. When told, after much tracking down, the man happily agreed to turn the music off. When the run concludes this Sunday, however, he’ll go back to serenading the people of the streets.