El Henry: Chicano-style Shakespeare comes to the outdoor stage in La Jolla Playhouse WoW Production

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

Last fall, you might have seen actor/writer Herbert Siguenza at San Diego REPertory Theatre in his one-man show “A Weekend with Pablo Picasso.” This month, he brings a new play to SILO, an outdoor space in the up-and-coming East Village neighborhood called Makers Quarter, where life is still a little rough around the edges.

Siguenza, a founding member of the comedy troupe Culture Clash, moved his family here from Los Angeles two years ago, and is making good on his post-Picasso promise to make this town his own.

“El Henry,” a sort of “East Side Story” based on Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” is a futuristic piece that takes place in a “post-gringo” California, where Chicanos rule. It’s a world premiere billed as Shakespeare for the 21st Century, the latest in La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls (WoW) series of site-specific plays that began with “Susurrus” at San Diego Botanic Gardens in 2011. This time, LJP is producing in association with the REP, where Siguenza completed an 18-month residency in 2013.

Here’s the story, which Shakespeare might have a bit of difficulty recognizing: It’s 30 years from now in Aztlan City, a run-down metropolis formerly known as San Diego, where corruption is rampant and violent barrio families rule the streets.

El Hank (King Henry) finds his street kingdom threatened by El Tomas (Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester) and his hot-headed nephew El Bravo (Hotspur). He seeks the help of his so-far disappointing son and heir, El Henry (Prince Hal), who has been spending most of his time with a bunch of thieves and drunkards headed by the fat, lazy, boastful but jovial Fausto (Falstaff).

The cast features Siguenza as Fausto, with Kinan Valdez as El Bravo and Lakin Valdez as El Henry, the someday-to-be Henry V. They are the sons of Luis Valdez, the groundbreaking writer of “Zoot Suit” known as the father of Chicano theater, and they’re part of El Teatro Campesino, the Northern California troupe founded in 1965.

Siguenza said he came up with the idea for “El Henry” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival four years ago, when he was understudying roles in the original “Henry IV.” “I never did get to go on, but I did get familiar with the story,” he said. “Family, loyalty, honor — that’s what the play’s about. And I thought: those are the same themes that apply to Chicano gangs. So I kept the story intact and just changed the place, the times, and the language.”

“El Henry” translates Shakespearean cadences into the edgy contemporary poetry of English and Spanish street slang. The soldiers use futuristic weapons and their fight scenes have been choreographed by Edgar Landa, an award-winning fight director from L.A. who’s been responsible for authentic-looking battles in many Shakespearean plays. Except for Landa and the Valdez brothers, the company is all from San Diego; Siguenza believes in using local talent, himself included.

“In the past few years, all my dream roles have been coming to fruition,” he said. “I played Big Daddy in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ in Alaska, Picasso at the REP, and now Falstaff here — all larger-than-life people. ‘El Henry’ is my biggest project yet, and Sam Woodhouse (‘El Henry’ director and artistic director of the REP) really knows how to put on a spectacle. I’m so happy to be doing this.”

If you go:

“El Henry” (adapted from Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part I”), written by Herbert Siguenza, directed by Sam Woodhouse, 7:30 p.m. through June 29 at SILO at Makers Quarter, 753 15th Street, San Diego. Tickets: $10-$25 at Note: Play contains mature content and language. Not suitable for children. Outdoor stadium seating: bring warm clothing, blankets and cushions for comfort.