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Henry IV, Part 1

The Pearl Theatre Company offers a beautifully-designed, but tepidly-acted production of Shakespeare's father-son history.

Shawn Fagan and John Brummer in Henry IV, Part 1.
© Al Foote

Are you getting a little tired of all these productions of Shakespeare set in clever and unlikely time periods? Don't you just want to see two dudes in medieval doublets hack at each other with swords while taunting one another in iambic pentameter? If so, you might enjoy The Pearl Theatre Company's production of Henry IV, Part 1, which has many brilliant moments -- though not nearly enough to fill a full three hours.

The second of Shakespeare's "Henriad" tetralogy, Henry IV, Part 1 is the story of the uneasy reign of King Henry IV (Bradford Cover). The King's lords conspire against him while his worthless son, the playboy Prince Hal (John Brummer) pisses away his time and money with the rotund scoundrel Sir John Falstaff (Dan Daily). When the King refuses to ransom Edmund Mortimer (Will Sturdivant) from the nefarious Welsh, Mortimer's brother-in-law Henry Percy, or "Hotspur" (Shawn Fagan), plots rebellion. Will Hal be able to stop drinking and goofing off with his slacker friends long enough to save dear old dad's head and the crown that sits atop it?

Shawn Fagan gives a standout performance, imbuing Hotspur with a special type of douchiness that would feel just as appropriate in HBO's Girls as it does here. He's like a coked-up libertarian financier, consumed with rage because his hard work goes unrewarded while all the privileges of the realm go to lazy trust-funder and heir-apparent Hal. His presence and delivery is so jarringly modern that it occasionally feels out of place in this very "traditional" production. Still, he's the most interesting performer on stage, so it is easy to forgive him and wish that the text were so alive in the mouths of the other actors.

Something else is certainly alive in the mouth of Bradford Cover's spitty King. He showers his son with disappointment and saliva, gloriously accented by Michael Chybowski's functional lighting. But while the King's spittle makes contact with Hal several times, it is unclear that his words ever do and this seriously hinders the father-son angst that is at the heart of this play.

As Hal, John Brummer seems rather disconnected. He says the words in the right time, kneels when he should, and occasionally guffaws at Falstaff's buffoonery, but it feels as though he is just going through the motions. For a boy who speaks in prose to his friends and verse to his father, Hal's dual nature should be obvious. It is forced in this production, and his transformation to a responsible son is unconvincing. He has very pretty eyes however, and totally looks the part of the bad boy heartthrob.

Everyone looks right in this well-cast production. Dan Daily is dead-on Falstaff, even if his delivery is a bit lukewarm. The look of the play is much indebted to Whitney Locher's imaginative and detailed period costumes. She's gone full-on Game of Thrones (ridiculous animal furs with faces included) and it looks gorgeous. There are just so many tall leather boots stomping over the Daniel Zimmerman's sprawling set. Complete with fireplace, long bar, and a mounted bear's head, it is evocative of a hunting lodge and really showcases the huge stage at the new Pearl.

Director Davis McCallum uses the luxury of so much playing space to keep the show moving forward in a hasty manner. The transitions are smart and cinematic. Rod Kitner's fights are particularly thrilling, but you have to stay on to the bitter end to enjoy them.

That is the sad fact of this play: it is three hours of mostly talking before you get to the blood and action. (The bard was never one for brevity.) And while a few of the actors are quite skillful at illuminating this language and making it as exciting as any battle, too many are not. Perhaps Shakespeare was wise to not tether his groundlings to seats, allowing their legs to wander with their minds.