If you’ve never seen Henry IV Part 1, the Pearl's production will bring you close to it and if you’ve seen it before you’ll love it all over again.
This last assumes you’ve loved it in the past which is probable because it’s one of Shakespeare’s best loved plays, for good reasons. Among them, it's hilarious. Falstaff is so vivid and original a character, so complex and real, that it’s hard to believe he's a creative invention; and, in the character of Prince Hal, the play deals with issues of fundamental fascination and importance for all of us, growth to maturity.
The play moves between the broad canvas of politics and war–a Scottish rebellion against King Henry IV–to the intimate–father and son, husband and wife, and that unforgettable friendship that doesn’t quite fall into any one category between Hal and Falstaff.
What makes this so delightful a production of Henry IV Part I is Dan Daily as Falstaff. He’s superb—big bellied, of course, taller than anybody else around, with the vitality, wit joie de vivre and touch of sultry wickedness one wants in the character. He's an epicurean, with the allure and paradoxes that idea contains. It’s fascinating to see this large man–and I mean really large–completely light on his feet, leaping on a table, doing a jig. One sees and feels Falstaff's thoughts–calculating or willful, assertive or accepting of a reversal–for a compelling cognitive instant before he speaks.
The question of Prince Hal's maturity makes one pause, though. What does it really mean in this particular play? We meet Hal as a a wayward libertine under Falstaff's spell, but that changes when his royal father is faced with imminent war. Then Hal buckles down, putting his easy pleasures aside to support his father's cause and become a fighter. One could call this "taking on responsibility." Or one can question human purposes, and the meaning of responsibility.
Bradford Cover as King Henry IV conveys the tension in this powerful personality aswarm with conflicts: his threatened yet adamant royal authority, and his disappointment with his pleasure loving son melded with underlying love. Shawn Fagan captures the eruptive and wry personality of Hotspur, though the character could use more physical heft. John Brummer is less original as the libertine and then chastened Prince Hal. He isn't Daily's match, which limits the rapport between Hal and Falstaff. As the Scottish rebel Douglas, Sean McNall gets the prize for the most authentic and charmning Scottish accent.
Though not usually my favorites, the battle scenes in this production are a high point, staged with passionate and convincing one-on-one duels, metal on metal. They've been exhaustively rehearsed to the point of total actors’ ease, so the fights seem completely spontaneous.
Above all, though, this Henry IV Part 1 is about Dan Daily’s Falstaff, which I think Shakespeare would have enjoyed. I sure did.
Henry IV Part 1 plays at the Pearl Theatre on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through March 17th. For more information and tickets, click on live link of title.
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