Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Knight of the Burning Pestle

Many years ago, when I was a student at Drew University, I directed an abridged version of the Jacobean comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle for the medieval revels.

That's why I was so excited when I found out that Red Bull Theater and Fiasco Theater would be doing a co-production of the play. Last night, I finally got a chance to see it.

If you're not familiar with the piece, it's the first instance I know of where members of the audience are scripted to invade the stage. As the play begins, a humble grocer and his wife object to the piece about to be performed and demand that the actors put on a play about someone like them.

At first, the actors want nothing to do with these rowdy audience members, but then the grocer produces his apprentice, who recites a passage from The First Part of Henry IV by William Shakespeare. Seeing he can act, they incorporate him into their show. Since grocers used mortars and pestles to prepare ingredients, they dub his character the Knight of the Burning Pestle.

If you're sensing similarities to Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, you are not alone. In fact, the would-be knight even has a battle with a barber, as does Quixote. This type of silliness is perfect for Fiasco, which uses creative ensembles to produce often hysterical results. Noah Brody and Emily Young directed this production, but I got the feeling that everyone on stage contributed to the zany creation.

Paco Tolson plays the titular character as a big lug with a giant heart--if not a lot of brains. He is accompanied on his quests by a squire, Tim, played by Ben Steinfeld. In the original, he is also joined by a dwarf, but this production changes that to a horse, played hilariously by Royer Bokus. The cast also includes Teresa Avia Lim, who was featured in Red Bull's production of The Alchemist in 2021, which occasions a rather funny in-joke during the play.

This production adds plenty of music, along with ad-libbed lines never penned by Francis Beaumont, who originally wrote the play (with or without the assistance of John Fletcher, who was credited on the play's title page when it was first printed, but is not thought by modern critics to have been a co-author). In addition to being silly, it's also surprisingly moving in parts, including the piece's closing song.

Unfortunately, the play closes on Saturday, so see it while you still can!