NEW YORK—William Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1” has political intrigue, drunken reprobates, and striking battles. For all its grand embellishments, though, the play at its heart is an intimate coming-of-age tale—one brilliantly put forth in the sparkling production presented by The Pearl Theatre Company.
King Henry IV (Bradford Cover) of England has come to power after overthrowing King Richard, only to find himself lord over an uneasy kingdom. Not only are there many of Richard’s former allies eager to depose him, there are also those in his own court who have their own agendas.
The courtiers aiding his rise to power include the Earl of Northumberland (Sean McNall) and his son, the quick-tempered Hotspur (Shawn Fagan), who are looking to get the rewards and recognition they feel they deserve. The new King seems not all that eager to dispense these honors.
While the King tries to navigate these treacherous waters, he’s also vexed by the antics of his son Prince Hal (John Brummer), who endlessly pursues fun and frivolity. Among the Prince’s companions is the weighty Sir John Falstaff (Dan Daily), who drinks to excess and is a great stretcher of the facts.
While Falstaff and the others around the Prince enjoy their pleasures, there is something fiercer in Hal’s relishing of them—as if he knows there will come a time when he’ll be called to take up the mantle of responsibility.
This time comes soon enough when hostile armies march against the King; forcing the Prince and a very reluctant Falstaff to ready themselves for battle.
“Henry IV, Part 1” offers two separate narratives side by side. Prince Hal straddles both stories and ultimately pulls everything together.
Director Davis McCallum, Brummer, and the rest of cast effortlessly transition from one plotline to the other. Scenic design by Daniel Zimmerman is strong in this regard, making full use of the playing area in the Pearl’s new and more spacious home.
The lighting work by Michael Chybowski and sound design by Peter John Still further augment the feeling of a whole piece. Especially effective was the opening sequence, a musical moment in a tavern, which gets things off to a rollicking start.
The entire cast works wonderfully here. Fagan makes a good Hotspur, hot-tempered and eager to get what he feels is rightfully his. If regard is not given by the hand of friendship, he’ll claim it at the point of a sword.
Hotspur also has no use for political niceties, much preferring the direct approach in everything he does. His speeches, which start off quietly, end up exploding with vitriol as the character becomes more resolute as the story unfolds.
Brummer is excellent as Prince Hal, a person who willingly accepts his destiny and is, basically, the only character who undergoes a major emotional shift in the play. The actor imbues the role with a devil-may-care attitude and an undertone of quiet reflection.
Brummer also portrays someone not afraid to give 100 percent in whatever he does—be it hatching a scheme of knavery, pledging allegiance to his father, or being prepared to fight to the death. Hal’s overall outlook is also similar to that of Hotspur’s, a man whose fate becomes intertwined with his own.
Daily is a hoot as Falstaff, one of the most cowardly, gluttonous, and unredeemable characters in the Shakespeare canon, yet also one of the most beloved. Daily shows just why this is so, as the character becomes the butt of everyone’s jokes including his own, while finding himself in one bad situation after another.
Yet Falstaff is so endearing and earnest in his actions one cannot help but like him. It also helps that he has an ability to think on his feet and an almost uncanny instinct for survival.
Even Prince Hal, who while shedding his former existence, sees in Falstaff an echo of that carefree time and a companion he does not wish to lose. As such, the Prince, and through him, the audience, are willing to give Falstaff a pass on his actions.
Cover projects a perfect air as King Henry—a man inflexible in his actions and one who sees himself always in the right. It is this attitude that enabled him to gain the throne and will, hopefully, allow him to keep it.
Others in the cast worthy of mention include Sean McNall as the powerful Earl of Douglas and Dominic Cuskern as Glendower—the leader of one of the rebel factions.
Work by fight director Rod Kinter and choreographer Birgitta Victorson are excellent, with the battle sequences feeling fresh and not at all stage bound. Particularly good are the combat scenes between Hotspur and the Prince and between the King and Douglas.
This production of “Henry IV, Part 1” crackles with energy from start to finish and offers action, intrigue, and comical interludes, with nary a drop in the action.
Also in the cast are Michael Irish, Chris Mixon, Ade Otukoya, Ruibo Qian, Lee Stark, and Will Sturdivant.
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London newspaper The Stage.