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El Henry’ Gives Shakespeare A ‘Mad Max’ Spin

World Premiere Play From La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls Program

‘El Henry’ Gives Shakespeare A ‘Mad Max’ Spin

Shakespeare goes Mad Max as part of La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls site-specific program. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando takes us to the post apocalyptic San Diego of "El Henry."


Shakespeare goes "Mad Max" as part of the La Jolla Playhouse/San Diego Rep Without Walls site-specific program: You can go to the post-apocalyptic San Diego of “El Henry.” The performance runs through June 29 at SILO in Makers Quarter.

And they're not kidding when they say "without walls."

“There’s no theater, this is not a theater,” Sam Woodhouse said, pointing to the open space of the abandoned lot at Makers Quarter.

The plays in this series are site-specific, placing a director like Woodhouse at a creative ground zero.

“This is a sandlot downtown against some buildings with graffiti on them,” Woodhouse added.

Woodhouse had to bring in everything: from the theater seats to the junk that litters the stage. The lack of walls also means there's nothing to separate actors like Lakin Valdez from the outside world.

“You hear the sirens passing by, motorcycles, people screaming — so in that sense, they become a part of the performance as well,” Valdez said, “So as long as you embrace that idea and just say, ‘OK, we surrender to you San Diego. Let us join you in this chaos that is the downtown area,’ and it’s wonderful to be able to take those challenges and to actually transform them into another part of your performance.”

“El Henry”

World Premiere

June 14 through June 29 at

SILO in Makers Quarter, 753 15th Street, East Village

Valdez plays the title character in the world premiere of Herbert Siguenza’s “El Henry.”

“We’re here at Makers Quarter, SILO, in the East Village where we are doing the site-specific play, an adaptation of ‘Henry IV’ in a post-apocalyptic San Diego,” Siguenza said.

He sets “El Henry” in San Diego of 2045.

“I mean right outside this street there’s homeless that could be 2045, so people just coming to this neighborhood start feeling different and once they come in here they don’t distinguish between reality and fantasy,” Siguenza said, “And we basically brought what the street offers on the stage.”

And what’s on stage is a boldly reimagined Shakespeare incorporating helicopters flying overhead, police cars driving by, and homeless people pressing against the chain link fence to see what’s going on. It’s what Siguenza calls a post-Anglo society in which California has been left to the Latinos and Chicanos.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: La Jolla Playhouse

Playwright Herbert Siguenza plays Fausto and Lakin Valdez plays El Henry, characters inspired by Shakespeare's Falstaff and Prince Hal.

Fausto (the Falstaff character that Siguenza plays in “El Henry”) explains to the audience: “You heard me right, I said gringo exodus. Back in 2032, there was a world-wide bank collapse, and Mexico went completely bankrupt and 50 million Mexicans fled north crossing into California. No laws, no fence, no drones can keep them out. Raza everywhere!.”

Siguenza taps into the chaotic social and political upheaval inherent in the Bard’s play.

“’Henry IV,’ the original, is about loyalty, family, coming of age, the relation between a father and son during war, and I thought these were the same traits and concepts that Chicano gangs live by and die for as well,” Siguenza said.

“The adaptation that Herbert has created and Sam has directed is akin to a graphic novel,” Kinan Valdez, Lakin’s brother, said.

Kinan Valdez plays El Bravo, the character inspired by Shakespeare’s Hotspur. He runs around stage in football shoulder pads blasting away enemies amidst the urban decay.

“This particular space helps us as performers imagine the world because it’s right here in front of us,” Kinan explained, “So the idea of a desolate landscape when you are running through this space and having dirt fly everywhere, it actually heightens the drama and makes our work easier.”

Companion Viewing

Chimes at Midnight” (1965)

"Mad Max" (1979)

Henry V” (1989)

My Own Private Idaho” (1991)

And in a sense the audience’s as well. It doesn’t take much to imagine you’re in a dystopian future. A truck serves as base for the homeless Fausto, and a cargo container with a purple bucket seat on top is from where Hank (the Henry IV of the title) rules the barrio. Woodhouse says you will find all the elements of Shakespeare’s history play here—just with a twist.

“The story is Shakespeare’s story, slightly modified by Herb, in some cases greatly modified, but it is a Shakespearean story; it’s a war play,” Woodhouse stated. “So all of that Shakespearean invention remains but the language is completely different. It’s Caló, it’s a mixture of Spanish and English and some made up words that didn’t exist that are sort of street lingo, street language. So the audience doesn’t have the challenge of trying to understand Shakespeare, they have the new challenge of understanding Caló.”

Which is fine with Siguenza, who has struggled with Shakespeare’s text for decades.

“I have always been frustrated with Shakespeare because of the language,” he said. “I find it strange quite frankly that we’re still reciting poetry from 16th century. I think we’re at another place now where we can, I think, start adapting those things and putting it more in perspective to what we can relate to.”

Photo caption:

Photo credit: La Jolla Playhouse

The world premiere of Herbert Siguenza's "El Henry" was designed for the space at Makers Quarter.

Modern audiences may not relate to English kings but “El Henry” makes them feel the immediacy of Shakespeare’s themes.

“It’s like what’s happening in Iraq now: Who’s going to be in charge? Will there be one? Will the authorities rule? Will gangs rule? Will it be a partnership? will it be a coalition that ruled?" Woodhouse said. "So the question of who runs the country, I think is as relevant today as any time.”

That’s the irony playwright Siguenza sees. Shakespeare’s play is more than four centuries old but its themes of war, honor and violence are as relevant and human as ever.


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