I first heard of The Knight of the Burning Pestle from a friend of mine who read it in college and lauded its humor and parodying of Renaissance theater. Written and performed in 1607, it references Shakespearean tropes and Cervantes-esque drama and chivalry and I was elated to see that Theatre Pro Rata was doing it this season.
If you loved Four Humor’s Don Quixote, enjoy spending time at the Renaissance Fair, and/or have any interest in bawdy Elizabethan humor and penis innuendo, this show is for you. A play within a play format, the show begins with the Prologue (David Schlosser) introducing the performance, The London Merchant, only to be interrupted by theater patrons George, a grocer (Ben Tallen) and his wife Nell (Rachel Flynn). Concerned that they are about to be bored and insulted, they take over the show, inserting their apprentice Rafe (George Dornbach) into the performance. The actors portraying the love story of Jasper (Grant Henderson) and Lucy (Julie Ann Nevill) struggle to compete with Rafe’s story line of assuming knighthood, becoming the Knight of the Burning Pestle (an interesting choice of allegiance which leads to phallic references) who is used to prevent Jasper and Lucy’s union, as the grocer and his wife thinks Lucy is better suited for the merchant Humphrey (Andrew Troth). Amidst other stories of the Falstaff-like Master Merrythought who continually breaks into song (Andrew Troth) and his wife (Julie Ann Nevill) who runs off with her favorite son (Davide Scholosser) and the family fortune, Rafe’s story line is inserted again and again as the grocer and his wife make a running commentary almost like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets or and Renaissance RiffTrax and quite literally steal the show, despite attempts by the stage managing apprentice (Becca Hart) to keep them in line.
The show is chock-full of references to other theater of the time. Rafe’s courageous battle sequence and cheering to St. George is reminiscent of a speech from Henry V and his journey into knighthood and battling giants is very Don Quixote (as is his devotion to his ladylove, Susan). Merrythought is a Falstaff caricature, and Jasper and Lucy are somewhat reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet (though the grocer is clearly in favor of Rosalind). There are many other references, I’m sure, but as I’m no Elizabethan expert, I leave that to the better studied scholars to establish. (And if you are looking for more fun tidbits about the show, check out Pro Rata’s play guide put together by the wonderful dramturg Christine/Kit Gordon. Not that I’m biased or anything.)
I’ve never been in Dreamland Art’s space before but it’s wonderfully suited for the Globe-like setting designed by Gabriel Gomez and audience-interactive performance.(Okay, so this show was actually first performed in Blackfriars Theater, but the pillars of the set draw a strong resemblance in my mind to the Globe.) Filled with music, a variety toy instruments produce much of the sound played mainly by Becca Hart and produce as vibrant soundscape as the personalities portrayed. With lush rich costuming by Mandi Johnson, illuminating lighting by Julia Carlis, clever props by Abbee Warmboe, and humorous and well-orchestrated fight choreography by Carin Bratlie Wethern, the piece comes together as a delightful montage that celebrates and mocks the themes of the times while showing how adaptable performance can be. The entire cast is wonderful and on point, with timing that wonderful hits home jokes and added audience heckling that is recognizable and hilarious to those who have ever experienced a show with patrons who simply don’t understand certain etiquette, such as opening a noisy snack in the middle of a kissing scene is probably a bad idea (not that I’ve ever experienced this). Tallen and Flynn wonderfully steal this show (for the audience, not just the performers) with their antics and reactions throughout and their reflections on the characterizations, especially Nell’s outcry against Merrythoughts’ treatment of his wife (which, if you’ve ever struggled with Shakespeare’s depiction of women, is much appreciated). Most of all, George and Nell capture what I as an audience member have often longed to do – to insert myself on stage and interact with the characters. Instead of restraining themselves from this yearning, George and Nell create immersive theater well ahead of their time and insist on becoming a part of the story as much as they insist on allowing Rafe his moment of glory onstage.
There is a lot going on in this show, even in the off-stage parts with the actors of The London Merchant sleeping, messing with costumes, trying to control their outrage at the unraveling of the established script, and complaining to stage manager Clara Costello for the grocer and his wife’s intercessions. Amber Bjork’s wonderful directing really shows in handling layers that occur and keeping everything flowing smoothly with the understanding that there isn’t always just one center of attention onstage. This production is really a delight and a perfect way to spend a tranquil summer evening.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle is by Francis Beaumont and directed by Amber Bjork. It is playing now through June 19th at Dreamland Arts in St. Paul. Show and ticket information can be found on Theatre Pro Rata’s website.