Historians cannot agree as to whether the Jacobean masterpiece The Knight of the Burning Pestle was the only play written by Francis Beaumont alone or was one of his famed collaborations with John Fletcher. In any case, this landmark 17th century comedy is no longer part of the usual canon, the last New York production recorded as 1953. For the current revival Red Bull Theater has united with Fiasco Theater for a free-for-all of a production.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle works on a number of levels and appears to be the first of its kind on several. It predates Pirandello by 300 years in breaking the fourth wall and has characters that interrupt the stage action and speak directly to the audience. It is considered to be the first dramatic parody in English and also continues in the City Comedy tradition popular at the time. It is a play-within-a-play in which the actors begin a comedy The London Merchant and then incorporate an “improvised” adventure story, The Knight of the Burning Pestle into. That story is a satire of Cervantes’ Don Quixote just at that time being translated into English from its Spanish original. It also has enough songs that forward its plot that it presages later musical comedies.
Although The Knight of the Burning Pestle failed in its first production probably for being too far ahead of its time, it was not forgotten as 124 years later playwright George Lillo resurrected the title The London Merchant and wrote his own original tragedy on its theme of the apprentice who goes wrong. Today audiences who have seen Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, Barbara Garson’s MacBird! or Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin will have no trouble understanding the comic intent of its plot.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle is still difficult as it has a few too many plots, several entirely unrelated to each other: Apprentice Jasper Merrythought is turned out by his master Merchant Venturewell when it is revealed that he wishes to marry Venturewell’s daughter Luce while Venturewell wants to engage her to his friend Humphrey who Luce abhors. He sets out to get his revenge as well as kidnap his love. In the meantime, his mother Mistress Merrythought has decided to leave her husband, the profligate Charles Merrythought (who sings most of his lines!), a perennial drunk who has squandered their inheritances until they are now broke. On her journey, she takes her younger son Michael, her jewels and savings in a casket which is then lost in the forest.
What is truly unique about the play is the early interruption of the story by George, a citizen grocer, and his wife Nell, both of whom object that, although they have never attended a play before, the theatrical community has not been fair to the middle-class grocers of the city. They demand that their apprentice Rafe be given the leading part in a new story. The actors agree and Rafe then appears as a “grocer errant” with a pestle on his shield and a colander on his head as a helmet.
The grocer and his wife then take seats on the stage and periodically comment on the action, sometimes interfering as they do not understanding that it is only play acting and not real. They also continue to make demands on the company of actors to give Rafe a more and more heroic part. Penultimately, they request that Rafe travel to the Balkans and woo the daughter of the King of Moldavia. As there is no one to play the princess, the grocer’s own wife Nell is requisitioned to play this role in a hilariously over-the-top style with a thick Transylvanian accent by Jessie Austrian. Finally, they require Rafe to be given a heroic death scene. They agree that if this is performed they will stop interrupting the play.
Directors Noah Brody and Emily Young, both of the Fiasco Theater, have neatly trimmed the dialogue and some of the minor characters so that the play comes in at two hours and 15 minutes. However, they have made some choices that work much less well. Except for a rolling doorway to designate Merrythought’s home, Christopher Swader & Justin Swader’s scenic design does not differentiate one scene from another due to its lack of design elements. Other than the musical interludes, the productions lacks atmosphere in all its scenes.
They have also used doubling and tripling to the point where it is difficult to keep straight who most of the actors are when they appear on stage in this play that has probably never been seen by most members of the audience. Most distracting is actress Royer Bockus playing three male roles – Merrythough’s son Michael, Little George, and a Servant as well as a horse named George. The role of Venturewell has had a change of gender but as Tina Chilip is still called “Merchant” but does not suggest one in her 17th century matron costume, this remains a little disconcerting. Characters who play major roles in one scene return to play minor roles in others which is more than a little confusing.
Another problem is the number of different styles of acting; it is as though almost all of the actors are performing in different plays, which is not helped by the inconsistent costuming by Yvonne Miranda which makes use of several centuries of clothing from Jacobean to contemporary. The songs are not consistent either: some are from the original play and others are contemporary. It is as though the directors chose to throw in everything except the proverbial kitchen sink.
When well-known plays like Hamlet or Death of a Salesman are revived, one almost expects the latest production to offer something new and daring, or why bother to restage it. However, with a totally unfamiliar play like The Knight of the Burning Pestle it makes more sense to make things clear to an audience that has no knowledge of the plot or the characters. The cast of the Red Bull/Fiasco production looks like they are having a wonderful time, as well as playing musical instruments, John Doyle-style. Would they had taken us the audience with them in a more lucid manner and made the jokes land where the author(s) intended.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle (through May 13, 2023)
Red Bull Theater in association with Fiasco Theater
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, between Bleecker and Hudson Streets, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.redbulltheater.com
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission