“The Knight of the Burning Pestle” by Francis Beaumont and directed by Tom Delise is presently playing at the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory in the Roland Park area of Baltimore.
The BSF tries to keep the theatrical experience as close to Shakespeare’s time as possible. Houselights are kept on throughout the play, the actors have no fourth wall and talk and sit with the audience. Music is a big part of the show. In this show, they use both period music and modern popular music. Sets, as in those days of yore, are minimal, and only pieces the actors can bring on and off are used. Costumes are used to differentiate characters as actors often play multiple roles. In Shakespeare’s time, actors often played cross-gender, and BSF includes a great deal of cross-gender casting (Shakespearean theatre had men playing women. BSF uses women to play men’s roles and vice versa.)
The play was first performed in 1607 at the Blackfriars Theatre and published as a Quarto in 1613. It is a satire on the middle-class values of the time, chivalry and true love, not unlike “Don Quixote.” Blackfriars was known for its performances of biting satire. This play is full of sexual double entendre as well. “The Knight of the Burning Pestle” was brought back to life in the early 20th Century with productions that featured a young Noel Coward, and later a young Ralph Richard, as the young apprentice, Rafe.
The play takes place in London and the neighboring county. As was common in the Shakespearean Era, Beaumont uses the device of a play within a play. There are clowns and buffoons as well as young romance. Most contrivances of the day, pretend-death, found jewels, getting lost in the woods are all there. “The Knight of the Burning Pestle” is Elizabethan farce much like “A Comedy of Errors” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
The play within a play is actually two plays that comedically intertwine during the very twisted and funny plot. A grocer (David Forrer) and his wife (Kerry Brady) go to the theatre. Not satisfied with the play on stage “The London Merchant,” they demand the play be changed. They also want their apprentice, Rafe (Warren Harris), to be included in the production. However, Rafe’s character really does not quite fit into the narrative and is really a separate story that satirizes “Don Quixote.”
The play the actors are trying to perform is a story of two young lovers who wish to marry despite obstacles from their families. Her father wants her to marry a young man named Humphrey (Katie Rey Bogdan), but the young girl, Luce (Jackie Madejski), longs for Jasper (Adam Henricksen). Jasper’s father, Old Merrythought (Cheryl J. Campo) is a happy lush, but his mother (Laura Weeldreyer) has had enough and runs away taking her jewels with her. Meanwhile, Rafe has become “The Knight of the Burning Pestle.” Pestles at the time were phallic symbols, and the group makes this very evident. As he goes about on his quest he interacts with the characters in the play within the play. Therefore, Rafe’s story is a play within a play within a play.
The production also uses a great deal of music, some of it quite modern. The performers in costume before the show starts to perform popular songs done in Elizabethan style (or at least what you might think is that style). They also perform at intermission.
‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’ is bright and funny. The stage with all the new renovations is a show in itself. If you love Shakespeare, or if you love farce, this show should not be missed.
This is a tight ensemble production. However, there are several notable performances. Harris is a perfect Rafe. He manages to make us believe the young apprentice is naïve and gullible but not an idiot. Rafe must never seem like a polished actor while he is the Knight. He must always be Rafe being thrust, sometimes reluctantly, into this role by his masters. Harris walks this tightrope without slipping.
Campo steals almost every scene she is in as the very merry Merrythought. Merrythought never misses a chance to sing a song, often very recognizable hits from the 1950s to the present. Campo brings contagious energy whenever she is performing, and her a cappella singing is most memorable.
Henricksen and Madejski as the two actors playing the young lovers have fine chemistry. They both also shine in their secondary roles as George the Dwarf and Barber, respectively. The scene when Henricksen, over six feet tall, is required to play the Dwarf is hilarious.
Brady as the Grocer’s wife, or Citizen’s wife, plays the bossy interfering bourgeois woman who thinks her new-found social standing and money gives her great privilege. Many laughs come from the wife and husband actually sitting on stage with the actors and interrupting with comments, and in Brady’s case, physically interfering with the characters when she is upset with the story. Forrer as the husband epitomizes the somewhat henpecked husband who tries to look powerful and rich while satisfying his wife’s every whim.
The actors in the play within the play all develop two personae. The first is the actor in the Elizabethan troupe who sits on stage in character until his part comes up in the plot. The other is the character in the story. A big round of applause goes to Bogdan as the somewhat buffoonish suitor, Humphrey, Weeldreyer as exasperated Mrs. Merrythought, Sarah Robinson as the person who seems to be in charge of the troupe, Amber Lipman especially in her role of Jasper’s dumber brother, Michael, Jim Knost most notably in the role of Pomponia, a princess who is part of Rafe’s make believe crusade and finally Yamaelis Rosas-Sanchez who performs several roles including humorously carrying out signs for scene changes as there is no real scenery.
Delise’s direction is quick-paced, and the comedic timing is just right. I am not sure if he made the decision to cast the tallest actor as a dwarf, but it is symbolic of much of the tomfoolery of the show. The comedy works even when the language is unfamiliar due to the wonderful physicality of the ensemble. I also did not know who decided on the song repertoire, but even the ones that were unfamiliar to the audience seemed to work, probably because they quickly jumped to another tune. Directing a play with a cast this size playing multiple roles and often changing costumes in front of the audience is a tough task, but Delise makes it seem easy.
Kendra Shapanus’ costumes are also interesting. She uses just plain black britches for the troupe members. Only Rafe and the Grocer and his wife are dressed in costumes representational of their social status of that era. The troupe’s other costumes are used to tell us which character they are at the time and to brighten up the stage. Shapanus is extremely creative in creating the effect of a simple group of actors being asked to do more than they bargained for when they took to the stage.
“The Knight of the Burning Pestle” is bright and funny. The stage with all the new renovations is a show in itself. If you love Shakespeare, or if you love farce, this show should not be missed.
Advisory: “The Knight of the Burning Pestle” is not recommended for young children due to colorful language and props.
Running Time: Two hours and twenty-five minutes with a very entertaining Intermission.
“The Knight of the Burning Pestle” plays weekends until November 24, 2019, at the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory at the newly renovated Kestrel Hall, located inside St. Mary’s Community Center, a historic former church at 3900 Roland Avenue, Baltimore MD 21211. For information about upcoming shows and the BSF go to their website. To purchase tickets online.