When I was younger, hearing the phrase "one of Shakespeare's histories" would have scared me away from a play. I know that many people still run and hid at the prospect of seeing one, but let's think about it in a different way. What if I told you about a Shakespeare play with tales of power struggles, a cavorting prince and his cowardly but prideful friend, and an epic battle scene? Now, this sounds less frightening, doesn't it? And it should, because even Shakespeare's history plays have plots, folks. Oh, and have you ever heard of a fellow named Falstaff? He's in this one too.
This is how I imagine the Pearl Theatre Company's very accessible production of Henry IV, Part I beckoning to Shakespeare scholar and novice alike. But since it only speaks with Shakespeare's voice, I will gladly take on the beckoning myself. It is an uneven production in many ways, but in its most successful moments, this play speaks to how these vibrant characters express their thoughts in ways that still seem profound hundred of years after they were first spoken.
The bulk of this load is, appropriately, carried by Dan Daily's impressive performance as that well-known braggart soldier, Falstaff. Queen Elizabeth loved Falstaff so much in both parts of Henry IV that she asked Shakespeare to continue writing for the character, which he did years later (The Merry Wives of Windsor). Daily's balance of charm and roguery keep us on Falstaff's side through his witty banter and existential asides alike.
John Brummer's Prince Hal keeps up his end of this foundational partnership as well. Brummer shows us how much Hal values his friendship with Falstaff, which makes the moments of trickery between them read as natural extensions of their teasing banter. Shawn Fagan also does a nice job with Hotspur and Francis. But it is not only the major players that keep this play engaging: there are also wonderful actors in smaller roles. The hilarious Chris Mixon is wonderful as Mistress Quickly and Worcester.
Unfortunately, there are a few weak links, and most unfortunately, the play begins with one of them. Bradford Cover's King Henry IV and Sean McNall's multiple characters both suffer from the unfortunate malady of trying to accomplish "Shakespearean Acting" (as opposed to simply acting in Shakespeare). They speak with loud, resonant voices and gesture with period mannerisms, but don't seem to have a connection to the sense of what they're saying.
The design is equally unbalanced, with a beautiful set and excellent lighting paired with some of the most incongruous costume design I've ever witnessed. Director Davis McCallum utilizes Daniel Zimmerman's set to the fullest, transforming the space into all of the many locations required in the play. The set itself reminded me of a technique utilized by 17th century French set designer Laurent Mahelot. Mahelot took a single stage and put several kinds of settings next to each other, the idea being that the actor could start in front of the woods, but then move to the center of the stage and continue the scene without being confined to that location. Here Zimmerman's setting contained four or five different areas that could establish location while the actors could either stay there or incorporate the neutral wooden platform space in the center of the stage into the scene. Michael Chybowski's lighting design carefully assisted this process, while also providing some emotionally evocative spotlights for asides.
Yet in the middle of this solid design, Whitney Locher's costumes simply do not fit. First of all, Prince Hal is wearing a contemporary leather jacket and black jeans while everyone else is in period dress. Second of all, one of her Scottish characters is seemingly dressed like Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings. Finally, the costumes generally distract from the action of the play rather than add to it. At one point I caught myself wondering why the Scottish army was dressed in uniforms made out of the material used to make oven mitts. That kind of attention is really unfortunate, especially when a production is doing so many other things right.
As you can see, The Pearl's production of Henry IV, Part I makes a lot of bold choices, a great number of which pay off. The fact that I have a strong reaction to some negative aspects of the show still tells me that this is a powerful production. It is also one that I highly recommend, especially if you've been itching to see one of those Shakespeare plays that falls into a certain category. The production closes March 17th, so get your tickets soon.