The Knight of the Burning Pestle


The Knight of the Burning Pestle

= By Francis Beaumont 

= Produced by Red Bull Theater and Fiasco Theater

= Directed by Noah Brody and Emily Young

= Lucille Lortel Theatre, NYC, Off-Broadway

= Shakespeare eclipsed the other Elizabethan dramatists, but their plays are nonetheless very rewarding. If they're less rewarding than Shakespeare, they're also less challenging — the syntax is simpler. And being more accessible is itself a strength.

Francis Beaumont was one of the best of these playwrights He wrote The Knight of the Burning Pestle in 1607. It's a terrific comedy. It uses the technique of a play-within-a-play several years after Shakespeare experimented with it (and then abandoned it) in The Taming of the Shrew.

Knight opens with he actors announcing the play they're about to present, The London Merchant. They're soon interrupted by The Citizen and his Wife who insist on that their son, Rafe, be included in the cast. Throughout, they interrupt the play — the woman doesn't seem to be able to tell the difference between stage life and real life. They even insist on rewriting the script. And this 350 years before Bertolt Brecht!

The scheduled play concerns an elopement in the middle class — but the two middle class Citizens (he's a grocer) have a taste for spectacle. And so Beaumont satirizes the boorish petite bourgeoisie; the two Citizens remind us of the modern stereotype of rude Americans in Europe. 

The grocer ands his wife want a chivalric romance ("Let him kill a lion with a pestle") and under their influence the play that we actually see parodies that form. The first part of Don Quixote had been published only two years before Knight appeared and Rafe, who insists on being called The Knight of the Burning Pestle, is clearly an alternative manifestation of de Cervantes' idealistic hero. The word "pestle", by the way, was suggestive to the Elizabethans.

Red Bull Theater and Fiasco Theater have taken on the challenge of presenting the play and their production is terrifically funny. It's played in modern dress on a very nice set. The two directors, Noah Brody and Emily Young, have directed their actors to play broad comedy allegro con brio. They throw their arms around and have a good time — and we have a good time as well.

The cast of ten are — to a man — remarkably adept at clowning in iambic pentameter. Every line, every action, is clear. They speak the verse spontaneously and with gusto. The actors playing the grocer and his wife (Darius Pierce and Jessie Austrian) are great, one step from circus clowns. Another charismatic actor, Ben Steinfeld, gets the audience to sing Bobby McFerrin's song Don't Worry Be Happy with him. This is just the sort of thing Beaumont intended.

The adaptation is very good, very meticulously crafted. For example, one particular: the grocer's name is George and in the script The Knight has a dwarf slyly named George. Here, the name's been assigned to The Knight's pretend horse. 

It would take a specialist to appreciate all the nuances of the adaptation —  but, for thing, the cast sings Let's Misbehave — certainly not in the original! And Beaumont certainly didn't write "Parting is such sweet sorrow", which our bride-to-be says here. Great! Aside from the cuts and additions, there's been some rearranging done.

The only problem is that the show is too long. There are whole passages that could well have been cut. No clown show can go on for two-and-a-half hours without serious moments holding it together. There are a few of these, to be sure — our bride has a lovely moment, played straight, with a speech beginning ""Come, come oh death bring me to thy peace" — but not enough to give the long show substance. After a while the show gets overly silly.

But no matter — Red Bull and Fiasco are to be congratulated on The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Were he here with us today, the late Mr. Beaumont would certainly be delighted.

— Steve Capra

May third, 2023

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