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The Knight of the Burning Pestle

A Play within a Play within a Play

By Francis Beaumont
American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.
Saturday, April 24, 2010, C–10&11 (center stalls)
Directed by Jim Warren

Rick Blunt in costume shaking his fist at the camera
Rick Blunt as Rafe playing the titular Knight of the Burning Pestle at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Photo by Tommy Thompson, American Shakespeare Center.

This was a play that proved to be much better in the telling than in the writing. Interesting concept, especially coming from a Jacobean playwright: As the play The London Merchant begins, a grocer in the audience interrupts the production and orders that it be revamped to include his apprentice as the hero, and thus The Knight of the Burning Pestle begins even as The London Merchant continues and the grocer and his wife conflate the two plays. It's kind of a 17th century Last Action Hero or Purple Rose of Cairo.

The problem is that in Beaumont's hands, neither of the plays—The London Merchant nor The Knight of the Burning Pestle, nor even the grocer's interpositions, for that matter—are especially well-written, and the conflation is clumsy. ASC's production further hindered the melding by having the original acting troupe perform in circus-like makeup and costume and play in over-the-top stylized form. It's like they were attempting to create a fourth wall that they could then break through (by comparison, ASC's own The Rehearsal achieved a similar guests-as-cast-commentary device much more seamlessly).

The upside is that in the hands of ASC's Rough, Rude, & Boisterous Tour troupe, the production was still highly entertaining and full of clever laughs. Rick Blunt as the apprentice Rafe playing the titular knight was a sweet combination of innocent boy and Quixotian hero, who so effectively crashed through the fourth wall that he made two audience members integral to the action. Ginna Hoben played the grocer's wife, Nell, as a dressed-up, sexed-up trailer-park honey, requiring two sittings to truly appreciate the play: once to watch the main action, and once to watch only her watching the main action.

Aidan O'Reilly did disparate double duty as Indigo Toad playing the always-singing Mr. Merrythought in Merchant and George the dwarf in Knight. James Patrick Nelson, meanwhile, did not do disparate duty as Kenneth T. Umbrage, giving an over-the-top performance of the Merchant lead Venturewell while taking serious umbrage at having to play Tim, the knight's squire, until he finally gets worn down. The two-time scene stealer was David Zimmerman. As Vic Smilei playing Michael in Merchant, Zimmerman made Beaumont seem a genius with his description of the Giant Barber (describing in terrified fancy what is merely a haircut); for Knight, he donned a skirt and large panties to play the saucy Pompiona, trying to seduce the knight, even prepared to throw down with Rafe's true London love Susan (a woman in the audience Blunt had zoned in on).

That triangular moment featuring Pompiona (Zimmerman), Rafe (Blunt), and Susan (who knows?) was evidence of the magic ASC's companies always manage to achieve, a magic that comes from selfless teamwork, big-hearted courage, and 100 percent effort and awareness.

Eric Minton
April 26, 2010

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