This 1596 Shakespeare history play is seminal as the first English drama to give equal prominence to the ruling class and the disreputable denizens of a dangerous neighborhood. The action moves back and forth between palace and downmarket public house until the two groups somewhat reconcile (this is only Part 1, after all) on a literal battlefield. Coming in Shakespeare’s progression between “Richard II”—of which the Pearl Theatre Company presented a superb mounting last season—and “Henry V,” which the troupe promises for next year, “Henry IV, Part 1” contains ongoing characters from before and introduces new ones who will reappear later in the series.
The title monarch, who usurped his kingship from Richard II, is now concerned with holding onto it against a similar rebellion led by Harry Hotspur. Henry IV is also troubled by his son and heir to the shaky throne, who is called Hal and will be Henry V. Hal is the link between the play’s two worlds, to the palace born but vastly preferring the dissolute company of drunkards and petty thieves at the Boar’s Head Tavern. There the central figure is Sir John Falstaff, a corpulent cadger of drinks and petty thief, who also serves as Hal’s surrogate dad in the distance between the prince and his regal father.
Thus “Henry IV, Part 1” has four leading men. The actors playing them combine in a perfectly adequate three-hour production—especially for those seeing the play for the first time—fluidly directed by Davis McCallum. But a little something is missing from each of the portrayals. Bradford Cover’s king seems not quite wracked enough with guilt over stealing the throne and lacks understanding that the rebellion against him is retribution for his theft. John Brummer’s Hal leaps too quickly from drinking buddy to dutiful son, though admittedly that transformation is better depicted in “Henry IV, Part 2.” Shawn Fagan’s Hotspur, as if living up to his name, is all loud and angry, never nuanced, or, as his own father puts it, a “wasp-stung and impatient fool.” While physically perfect for the part, Dan Daily, as Falstaff, is mostly missing the merry twinkle behind the reprobate: the forgiving quality that attracts Hal in the first place and induced the real Queen Elizabeth I to have Shakespeare write “The Merry Wives of Windsor” to feature Falstaff.
On the other hand, Chris Mixon excels both as Worcester (Hotspur’s uncle and a leader of the rebellion against Henry) and the loquacious hostess of the Boar’s Head. His hostess is an argument for cross-gender casting (though other attempts in the production aren’t as successful), but these should not be the play’s takeaway performances.
Daniel Zimmerman’s dual set—depicting both tavern and palace and moving back and forth in quick succession—is sensational. So are Whitney Locher’s regal and military costumes, though she might rethink the more modern biker togs worn by the young wastrels, including Prince Hal. Another standout slightly outshining the production is the Pearl’s gleaming new permanent venue.
Presented by and at the Pearl Theatre Company, 555 W. 42nd St., NYC. March 3–17. (212) 563-9261 or www.pearltheatre.org. Casting by Stephanie Klapper.
Critic’s Score: B