The Knight of the Burning Pestle
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
July 13, 2006
Playwright Francis Beaumont's original intention in The Knight of the Burning Pestle was to satirize the rising class of nouveau riche and to show how chivalry had become snobbery. The Queens Players (according to a note by director/adaptor Kevin Dodd) have taken Beaumont's theme and used it to make a statement on the emergence of interactive entertainment. Now I didn't actually realize this until I read the note. I saw this play at its face value, which is as a very funny and highly entertaining comedy. I love the idea of taking two things to create a unique third and Beaumont does a fantastic job of this in this play.
The play is actually two stories in a sort of "mashup" style. A troupe of players are trying to put on a production of The London Merchant but are forced to wrangle with a couple who insist on having the players take their dim-witted son Rafe on as their leading man. The frustrated Stage Manager agrees to take Rafe but Rafe does not want to play any of the roles in the play and instead creates his own role and story—that of an errant knight with a burning pestle as his chivalrous symbol. While he tries to save the princess the characters/actors of the other play try to work with and around him and his intrusive parents.
The connection between this play and modern interactive entertainment is weak at best* but that matters little because what this production boils down to is pure tongue-in-cheek fun. Dodd most certainly guides his extraordinary ensemble to a style that's sort of slapstick, sort of melodramatic (melodramatic in the contemporary sense). He creates some great stage pictures and bits and has obviously allowed his cast to explore outrageous characters all their own. He also allows for some hilarious improvisations.
The cast is absolutely fantastic. I had a great time watching this play scene by scene as opposed to absorbing the play as a whole. I never knew what to expect and I love that. Some highlights include Isaiah Tanenbaum as the bumbling and fruity suitor, Katie Braden as the stern merchant and actress who must go on with the show, Dana DiAngelo as the Stage Manager who must deal with the meddling parents, and Matthew AJ Gregory as the obtuse but lovable Rafe.
But in the end it was Le-Anne Garland and Cate Bottiglione that I was still laughing about as I walked to the subway. Garland plays an insanely ghetto Elizabethan Innkeeper (among other roles) and she brings a fresh and funny perspective to every scene she's in. Bottiglione is an absolute scream as the mother of Rafe. She is a gum-smacking, big-earring-wearing, camel-toe-sporting local Queens woman with so much attitude she can hardly contain herself. She even sits there and chats with the audience while flossing during intermission. She steals the show.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle is pure good times. Written 400 years ago in Elizabethan English (and spoken by some here with a Queens accent) it still has all the elements that make for a great comedy even for a contemporary audience. One note: the theatre is actually in a restaurant so when you go (and you should definitely go), enter the steak house and then make your way to the back room.
* As far as the idea of interactive entertainment in this play I can certainly see that the parents' and Rafe's intrusions are interactive, but I can't really see how their actions relate to any form of interactive entertainment that we have today. Sure you can vote for your favorite American Idol but is that truly interaction? Even when it comes to true interactive theatre such as the work of Brazilian director Augusto Boal, with whom Dodd studied, the intention is to give ownership of the story and its message back to the audience in the hopes that the message will superimpose onto their real lives, and not to take the play away from the players as the characters do here.