Theater at Monmouth: “The Knight of the Burning Pestle” (REVIEW)
Insane hilarity and delicious fun. If no one else, in reviewing TAM’s production of “The Knight of the Burning Pestle”, doesn’t use phrases or flavor along these lines, they need to go back and start over in their analysis.
Simple as that. Really, it was THAT well done…
Okay, from the top. Deep breath…
The first clue one gets that this show is NOT going to be a slow starter or predictable appears before you even get to your seat, as local grocers “Citizen” (Bill Van Horn) and his wife (Grace Bauer), along with a handful of other actors similarly attired come up through the hallways of Cumston Hall with the audience.
Dressed in full 17th century English garb (Francis Beaumont’s play was originally set at London’s Black Friar’s Theatre in the 1600s), complete with tankards of ale, they chat and sit among the audience to await the beginning of the play. With them is their much-admired apprentice “Rafe” (Max Waszak), squires “Tim” (Ambien Mitchell) and “George” (Ryan Simpson)- and the back doors/ exits of the theater are … um… protected… by a pair of large and menacing, unnamed soldiers (Josh Carpenter and Luke Couzens).
Seeing this set-up before the play even began, I quickly scurried to an available seat at the far right of the theater, as to be able to fully witness what was about to unfold. All indications were that this was to be immersive/ interactive theater at its best- and I didn’t want to miss a single second of it.
Even as producing artistic director Dawn McAndrews was welcoming those assembled and asking that we “shut off all devices that bing, beep, ring or shine lights to the stratosphere” , the ever-friendly, likable and amiable Citizen was speaking up and quickly getting chuckles- as such gizmos were completely foreign to him and his wife, equally chatty and familiar with the audience.
What fourth wall?
The original play onstage began. Called “A London Merchant”, its storyline was barely introduced by Simon Kiser‘s soon to be long-suffering narrator “Prologue” with the initial opening act commencing before Citizen and wife “Coney” were interrupting the production, demanding more action and better acting, as well as a show that celebrated their city and the common folk- and story lines and inclusion for their dear apprentice Rafe as an important part of the cast. Money talks, as do enough shillings given to the poor acting company, and in short order young Rafe and the two awkward squires join the original acting professionals on stage.
Quickly what had started as a tale of two suitors, Jasper (Alexander Harvey), elder son of the musically inclined and well-named Master Merrythought (Mark S. Cartier) and the more dour Mistress Merrythought (Janis Stevens), and Sir Humphrey (Mike Anthony) for the hand of the beautiful Luce (Aislinn Kerchaert), daughter of the wealthy Venturewell (James Noel Hoban), as well as the Merrythoughts’ complicated division of wealth for their sons (Jasper the favorite of his father and Michael/ Mick, as played by Simon Kiser, the apple of his mother’s eye) became even more so with the addition of Rafe and the grocers’ squires. The acceptance of the money meant that some quick improvising had to be made- and so in the blink of an eye, the show included new subplots unconnected to the original script to sate Citizen and his wife, as grocer boy turned knight-errant Rafe (or now “The Right Courteous and Valiant Knight of the Burning Pestle”, as he insisted upon being evermore addressed by his squires) such as taking on a dragon and winning the heart of a princess of a faraway land. Giving long-winded monlogues of describing the glory of England and in particular the working class, as well as his beloved (and never seen) love Susan, and finally in his uproarious deathbed scene.
While attired wearing the Golden crest of the Burning Pestle- a ridiculous phallic-shaped tool emblazoned on his chest and the ever-present weapon of choice in his hand throughout the rest of the show.
That the original cast did not HAVE enough members to cover such additional roles needed to be immediately addressed- and as such, the local barber (Josh Carpenter) was quickly enlisted to play a bit part, the shy and not at all made for theater “Tim” pressed into double-duty as the newly added “Princess of Maldonia” (how Ambien Mitchell, an extraordinarily talented actress, was able to not only act BADLY as the very nervous, stumbling and untalented “Tim”- but then portray “Tim” as a badly acted caricature of a royal damsel as “Princess Pompiona” so perfectly is a true credit to her great range as an actress and comedic talents) and a local young woman for hire/ of ill-refute “Tapster” (Hannah Daly) chosen to play a … “Boy??” (a repeated, running gag throughout the bawdy show).
Control of the show shifts back and forth, between the original players telling the tale of Jasper and Luce’s rather classic Shakespearean-like troubled romance with the subplots involving the Merrythought clan, Sir Humphrey and Venturewell, and the jovial Citizen and wife Coney- who rather than sit quietly and watch the play unfold, speak directly to the characters and offer encouragement, information or advice directly to the players. Hilariously performed is an ongoing flirtation that develops between “Sir Humphrey” and the Citizen’s wife, who takes a fancy to him, as well as how Citizen and his wife hiss and boo whenever “Jasper” appears, throwing the actor off his original focus, time and again. The actors vary between being annoyed with the grocers, long-suffering, amused, confused, bemused… it’s all there and after awhile, it becomes clear that the show has taken on a insanely funny life of its own, as even the original cast cannot control their mirth.
Wicked, delicious fun… and hard to believe that this is a 400 year old play, as the timing and humor translate so well and seem reminiscent of the much more modern humor of a “Monty Python” or “Saturday Night Live” comedy troupe. Well done!
CAST (in order of appearance):
Prologue/ Boy/ Michael: Simon Kiser
Citizen: Bill Van Horn
Citizen’s Wife: Grace Bauer
RAfe: Max Waszak
Venturewell: James Noel Hoban
Jasper: Alexander Harvey
Luce: Aislinn Kerchaert
Humphrey: Mike Anthony
Tim/ Pompiona: Ambien Mitchell
George: Ryan Simpson
Mistress Merrythought: Janis Stevens
Master Merrythought: Mark S. Cartier
Captive/ Tapster: Hannah Daly
Host/ Greengoose: Frank Omar
Barber/ Hammerton/ Soldier: Josh Carpenter
Servant/ Knight/ Captive/ Soldier: Luke Couzens