The play may be called “1 Henry IV,” but it’s Sir John Falstaff—Shakespeare’s fun-loving, irrepressible oaf—who steals the show.
This coming-of-age political drama follows the youthful adventures of Prince Hal with that rascal Falstaff before it’s time for him to join his father’s side at the battle of Shrewsbury and ultimately become Henry V. And it all unfolds in a flashy and exciting new production at Folger Theatre.
“1 Henry IV,” featuring Rosa Joshi in her D.C. directorial début, certainly knows how to make an entrance. In its dramatic opening, cast members engage in stylized fight scenes, beating their fists on the floor in a moody, clubby atmosphere; Sara Ryung Clement’s behind the neon lights-loving set design. That same vibrant energy carries throughout the show, especially in the scenes of Hal living it up parent- and responsibility-free.
Audiences first see Hal partying hard (and briefly shirtless) with a merry gang of thieves and playing tricks on Falstaff. But eventually, life takes the wild-child prince from the high jinks of Boar’s Head Tavern to the battlefield, as the kingdom is threatened by throne-seeking rebels led by Hotspur, his father Northumberland, and his aunt Worcester. The second act sees a more mature Hal, all suited up and determined to prove himself.
In his D.C. theater début, Avery Whitted is enjoyable to watch as the carefree young adult—full of sweet and boyish charm—who quickly mans up to fight for his country.
Also stepping up in this fight is Falstaff, but maybe not so gallantly, with a bucket on his head for a helmet. Playing this Shakespeare fan favorite is four-time Helen Hayes Award winner Edward Gero in a scene-stealing, multilayered performance. The actor is no stranger to playing larger-than-life characters (Ebenezer Scrooge and even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia). Here, Falstaff is hilarious but he’s also very human. It is the relationship between Falstaff and Hal that serves as the show’s heart. There’s so much fun and warmth in their scenes together, and Whitted and Gero do a terrific job of making the audiences so invested in them.
Majorly flawed, Falstaff has certainly made some questionable life decisions—stealing, lying and taking credit for killing a man among them—but that hasn’t made him any less lovable. But Falstaff is more than just a bad influence and going-out buddy. We see a friend and father figure in Falstaff. The prince’s interactions with his own cold and emotionally distant father couldn’t be any more different.
As Hal’s foil is Hotspur, who also shares the name “Harry” with the prince; the play charts their separate journeys until they meet head on in battle. Tyler Fauntleroy gives a fiery performance as the young, hot-headed member of the Percy family, who’s been disgraced by the king and enraged over his actions toward his family especially after they helped him get the throne.
Peter Crook as King Henry IV, Naomi Jacobson as Worcester and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Blunt and Mortimer also turn in strong performances. Maribel Martinez as Lady Percy and Jordan Lee as Lady Mortimer also have some touching moments in a scene with their husbands, before they’re off to war. And it’s always a delight to see Kate Eastwood Norris onstage, even though her roles as Mistress Quickly and Vernon were all too, um, quick.
In this production, life inside and outside the kingdom are clearly contrasted with striking—and sometimes odd—pairing of styles: tightly wound politicians sport gray utilitarian looks (with the exception of Worcester’s red-hot heels) with free-spirited commoners in bright and cheery colors. For the most part, Kathleen Geldard’s costumes serve the royals, rebels and revelers well; however, some of the battle looks seem to favor an Eddie Bauer equestrian vibe and King Henry IV’s own battle garb kept reminding me of a Christmas tree skirt.
With Folger’s richly satisfying production (boosted by Gero’s heavyweight performance) of “1 Henry IV”—part of the “Henriad” history plays, viewers will be eagerly awaiting the story’s next chapter.