Every time and place has its popular arts, and in turn, every popular art engenders satire and mockery. The great dramas of Ben Jonson, Marlowe, and Shakespeare were hugely successful in their time both as entertainment and as serious art; and in turn, Sir Francis Beaumont, a student of Jonson’s and purportedly a drinking buddy of Shakespeare’s, wrote The Knight of the Burning Pestle around 1607 to distort and break and have fun with the dramatic norms of the day. But the play was not a success, and Beaumont soon thereafter began his famous collaboration with John Fletcher, during which he really made his name. Fortunately, this “satire on plays, playwriting and actors” (as director Richard Mazda describes it) has come down to us. And it remains mostly easy to understand—and hugely entertaining.
Usually before reviewing a production of an Elizabethan or Jacobean play, I read or re-read it to prepare. I deliberately didn’t here, on a dare to myself: could I follow the language and understand the plot of a 400-year-old play I’d never read or seen before? And would Mazda and his Queens Players come through with a production that is not only ambitious, as theirs usually are, but also readily intelligible to an audience that doesn’t know the play?
The answer is, forsooth, yes indeed. Not only is this hotheaded Pestle extremely funny and boundlessly energetic, but it’s exceedingly well cast and (in a related development) dramatically rich.
Beaumont breaks the fourth wall almost immediately by having a grocer and his wife interrupt the opening scene of the “official” play to demand changes. And the invisible barrier between audience and performers is never repaired; the pair remain in the audience and cheer, boo, and kibitz throughout the production, having forced the players to insert the grocer’s apprentice, Rafe, into the story as a Don Quixote-like knight errant with a burning pestle as his heraldic device and their two children as his retinue.
The grocer and his wife are figures of fun—Beaumont is clearly mocking them—but jovial and engaging, especially as played by the ever-gregarious Thom Brown III and the wonderful Helyn Rain Messenger, who is new to the company (and to me) and about whose performance it’s hard to say enough—so I’ll just say it would be worth attending this production just for the irresistible force of her commitment to the bawdy-sweet role.
As for the plot, well…young Lucy (Avery Manuel) ricochets between two suitors, the earnest apprentice Jasper Merrythought (Philip J. Rossi) and the flamboyantly fashionable Humphrey (Jonathan Emerson, who was a memorable Dauphin in Saint Joan last fall). Jasper’s father rides around on a tiny tricycle and communicates in song and puppetry, while, in the parallel play, gallant Rafe defeats a giant (who is really just a barber) and rescues his captives (from their scheduled shaves and haircuts). At interludes, a player moonwalks for us while a child plays violin. Later Jasper pretends to die so he can appear to Lucy’s father as a ghost and scare him into blessing their marriage. But the crazy plot, while entertaining to follow, is less important than the play’s turning inside-out of our expectations of theater. While plays of the era often did have prologues, in which the players directly begged the audience for their indulgence and applause, that’s where the direct connection ended. Here it goes on and on.
Mazda’s bare-bones production (no scenery, simple props, basic lighting) allows the action to dominate, and there’s plenty of it. A cascade of stage business is always going on to back up the central dialogue of any given scene under Richard Mazda’s superb, broad yet nuanced direction. The fine performances are too many to call out individually. I will point out that Joshua Warr makes a glorious Rafe and Kate Siepert a funny and intense Mistress Merrythought. But the large cast is almost without a weak link, and the production is simply a blast. Don’t feel the need to bone up on your Beaumont; just go see it this neglected classic, for which Mazda makes a thoroughly convincing case.
The Queens Players present The Knight of the Burning Pestle at the Secret Theatre, Long Island City, Queens, NY, through March 5.
Photos by Sean MacBride Murray: 1) Kate Siepert & Kyrian Friedenberg; 2) Alex Stine