By: Samuel L. Leiter
May 5, 2023: Swimming in the flood of recent openings, I somehow overlooked an invitation to see The Knight of the Burning Pestle (TKOTBP). However, when several colleagues encouraged me to look into this rare revival of an unusual Elizabethan (actually, Jacobean) farce, I made the leap, discovering, too late, that I might have been better off without the well-meant advice. On the one hand, the production, a collaboration between two highly regarded Off Broadway companies, Fiasco Theater and Red Bull Theater, at the nicely renovated Lucille Lortel Theatre, is a must-see for anyone with an interest in little-known plays by Shakespeare’s competition. On the other, its hammer and tongs comic approach is so overwrought you begin to realize how much time has elapsed before you actually laughed, if, indeed, you ever did.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle, one of those titles drama students have come across numerous times with little or no idea of what it’s actually about, is a 1607 play-within-a-play farce by Francis Beaumont. His name—usually connected to his frequent collaborator, John Fletcher—just happens to be that of the faux playwright played (at the moment) by Neil Patrick Harris in the current Broadway production of Peter Pan Goes Wrong. PPGW, btw, is also a farce based on unexpected impediments to the smooth production of yet another play-within-a-play.
As Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and other plays of the era reveal, the play-within-a-play notion was a generally accepted convention, although never quite so radically expressed as in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. There—much as in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author—the line between illusion and reality is so blurred it’s hard to discern one from the other. Or, ideally, should be.
Essentially, we have a troupe of actors about to present a play called The London Merchant (not to be confused with George Lillo’s groundbreaking domestic tragedy of 1731), when they’re interrupted by a bourgeois couple in the audience. They are George (Darius Pierce), a loudmouthed greengrocer, and his equally outspoken wife, Nell (Jesse Austrian). Presumably better acquainted with the kinds of lowbrow shows given at more plebian playhouses, George and Nell demand that the troupe alter their play to allow for the common people be glorified via the incorporation of a new subplot starring their apprentice, Rafe (Paco Tolson).
As George and Nell, seated on stage, watch, continually commenting and interacting with the proceedings, the company and Rafe, who wields a phallic pestle and is helmeted in a shiny barber’s basin, improvise a narrative about a Don Quixote-like hero they call the Knight of the Burning Pestle. The errant-knight’s picaresque adventures have little to do with the complexities of the company’s main play, which recounts the romantic misadventures of a young couple. They are Luce Venturewell (Teresa Avia Lim) and Jasper Merrythought (Devin E. Haqq), who seek to outfox Luce’s fatuous, would-be suitor, Master Humphrey (Paul L. Coffey). Humphrey is the choice for son-in-law of Venturewell, Luce’s mother (Tina Chilip); the latter is a father in the original. Jasper’s parents, Old Merrythought (Ben Steinfeld), a jovial chap always singing and dancing, and Mistress Merrythought (Tatiana Wechsler), figure prominently as well. Also involved in the comically exaggerated complications, meant to satirize the period’s heroic romances, is Jasper’s kid brother, Michael (Royer Bockus). Believe me, what transpires is far too complex and nonsensical to repeat. Naturally, all works out for the best.
The shenanigans, of course, are intended as silly fun about the joys of theatre, buoyed by frequent musical interpolations in a wide variety of styles; several actors accompany the singing on different string instruments, the music ranging from period numbers to original tunes to Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave.” In all honesty, these lovingly performed musical segments are the show’s highlights, welcome distractions from an inflated directorial approach by Noah Brody and Emily Young that allows the cast to bellow, mug, and otherwise do anything deemed appropriate to show the audience just how funny they think they are.
TKOTBP is presented on a thrust stage—designed by Christian Swader and Justin Swader, and lit by Reza Behjat—backed by a shabby wood plank wall that, despite a crude sketch of London on it, looks more like the inside of an old barn than a first-rate indoors theatre (like the Blackfriars, where the play debuted). This is at odds with the premise that we’re actually in London, not somewhere on a provincial tour. Yvonne Miranda’s costumes are a mélange of styles from multiple indeterminate periods, as if the actors simply rummaged through the bins at a theatrical Goodwill in search of what to wear.
Rarely is the existence of subtlety and nuance acknowledged; loudness and physical hyperbole are the default means of expression, as if the only way to make the audience laugh is to force it to do so. And, as usual, many viewers get that message, appreciating an approach that makes the company seem as if it had trained not at Juilliard or RADA but at the Three Stooges Academy of Dramatic Art. The actors are clearly having fun, and several display much potential, especially Mr. Steinfeld, but it would be nice if the audience had a smidgen of that fun as well.
The egregious overacting might have been somewhat ameliorated if it were contrasted with a more earthbound method employed by George and Nell. These visitors from the real world need to be contrasted somehow with their thespian cohorts. Instead, they are, if anything, even more over-the-top than them. Might not it have been possible to be both real and funny at the same time? The script remains bound by its early 17th-century language, but would it really have been sacrilegious to rewrite it so that George and Nell sounded more like modern, everyday folk so as to strengthen the distinction between reality and art?
At any rate, when the play received perhaps one of its most important modern revivals, at London’s Aldwych Theatre in 1981, Timothy Kightly, playing George, was apparently so believable when he began to interfere with the performance, that an actual audience member grew so disturbed he tried to stop him. When the poor guy realized it was all part of the show, he angrily barged out of the theatre, feeling duped. Given the current show’s total lack of interest in making George and Nell anything but additional clowns, such a situation is impossible to comprehend happening again.
It’s said that, in 1607, TKOTBP was withdrawn after only one performance, making its premiere a definite flop. Scholars have wondered ever since why that could have been. Perhaps, had they seen the current version, they’d have their answer.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street, NYC
Through May 13, 2023
Photography: Carol Rosegg