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The Knight of the Burning Pestle

Theatre Review by Kimberly Ramírez - April 27, 2023

Royer Bockus, Ben Steinfeld, Paco Tolson,
and Tatiana Wechsler

Photo by Carol Rosegg
Red Bull Theater, in association with Fiasco Theater, is presenting a playful, relevant production of Francis Beaumont's riotously comic, fourth-wall-shattering metaplay The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Written over four hundred years ago, the Jacobean satire stands up in this updated version, and if laughter is the gauge of comedic success, the genuine guffaws and belly laughs rolling through the audience prove that this play–which originally flopped at London's Blackfriars Theatre in 1607–is a contemporary crowd-pleaser at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

Staged today, in this age when popular entertainment sensibilities are conditioned by hyper-customizable streaming media, we understand all too well how one might expect to exert extreme control over their personal viewing experiences. While the privileged playgoing elite of Beaumont's early modern era could sit on the stage with the actors, the common populace–and present-day pop culture spectators–may fantasize storming the theatrical stage for an unobstructed, high-definition view of scenes that we can choose, pivot, pause and play. With several recent incidents of public audience members behaving badly, it's almost unsurprising when someone shouts to interrupt the opening action from the back of the house.

A common citizen, a grocer (Darius Pierce), is preempting the prologue of a pretentious play-within-the-play, ordering the troupe to perform a different piece in honor of his ilk. He insists, on demand, "I will have a grocer, and he shall do admirable things." His wife (Jessie Austrian) helps him devise a scenario to impose upon the actors: a grocer-cum-knight-errant should enact exaggerated exploits while wielding a weapon from a pestle (both a grocer's and a gross tool, since the burning pestle euphemistically suggests a syphilitic phallus). This common grocer couple promotes their apprentice Rafe (Paco Tolson) to play their representative protagonist, doubly exalting common folk by insisting his natural flair for drama will eclipse the talents of the trained troupe ("he will go beyond them all").

When the company proceeds to perform their rehearsed play while also improvising along with this new scenario, they produce a tangle of intrigue as multiple plots emerge, converge and collide. The bizarre metatheatrical layering of character permits intense revelations of hilarity and humanity that transcend conventional archetypes. But who will stop to renavigate the grocer's plot if it goes too far? ...Pestle poses provocative questions concerning politics, privilege, and popular taste while considering: Who creates theatre?... consumes it?... evaluates it?... and what is it all for?

The outrageously talented ensemble is expertly directed by Noah Brody and Emily Young, whose compassionate focus on mirth and merrymaking ensures an engaging, perfectly paced romp with nonstop aural and visual delights. Pierce's delivery and comic timing is impeccable as the unruly grocer and Tolson is captivating as the Quixotic grocer-errant. A dramatic coronation depends on clever costumes and props by Yvonne Miranda and Samantha Shoffner, leaving Rafe clad in a colander (helmet), sheathed polearm (pestle), and trashcan lid (shield) featuring the burning pestle image as a heraldic emblem.

Melodies and sound effects emerge organically from the company's own instrumentation, with a whimsical symphony of slapsticks, chimes, and coconut shells, Paul L. Coffey alternating between pennywhistle and cello, and showstopping guitar and vocals from Ben Steinfeld. The whole design comes together most alluringly through Royer Bockus, an ultra-unique ukulelist crooning in a quirky costume that serves their seamless, split-second character shifts from boy to horse and back again. Players Tatiana Wechsler, Teresa Avia Lim, Devin E. Haqq, and Tina Chilip round out the ensemble, helping to "improvise" a rousing musical soundtrack drawn from pop and folk music, flamenco, and musical theatre.

This production's environmentally conscious designs, with sets by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader and lighting by Reza Behjat, use natural, reclaimed, and recycled materials (the upstage wall of wood is repurposed from Red Bull's recent Arden of Faversham). A collection of salvaged chandeliers and pendant lamps emits a glorious glow from the grid, simulating candlelight, a subtle nod to Jacobean period performances.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle
Through May 13, 2023
Red Bull Theater, in association with Fiasco Theater
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: