With Red Bull Theater’s mission of sharing great classic stories and plays of heightened language, and Fiasco Theater’s dedication to presenting innovative and joyful productions that invite the imagination and provide pleasure to everyone on stage and in the audience, their current collaboration on English playwright Francis Beaumont’s wild and boisterous 1607 metatheatrical comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle, playing a limited Off-Broadway engagement at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, would seem like the ideal choice for both companies. Combining segments of Elizabethan verse and song with bawdy humor and rowdy slapstick, the new production, directed by Fiasco’s Noah Brody and Emily Young, also injects present-day elements and stylings into Beaumont’s original, for an over-the-top mash-up of then and now.
Presented in a riotous play-within-a-play format, the story is an excessive self-referencing parody of theater, performers, writers, and theatergoers, filled with low-brow humor, sexual innuendo, sight gags, physical comedy, musical interludes, breaks through the fourth wall, audience interaction, and pretty much everything but the kitchen sink. The narrative begins as a group of players are on stage warming up for their show The London Merchant, about star-crossed lovers determined to marry without the consent of her mother (sound familiar?), when suddenly a grocer and his wife interrupt them with a loud and aggressive demand for a play that portrays common people as heroes, not socially undesirable spouses. And it should star his apprentice Rafe.
To placate the citizens, the company goes on, adding The Knight of the Burning Pestle (grocers of the time used pestles to grind food and spices, but it’s also a suggestive metaphor for a man with an STD) as an improvised subplot, and the result is a show that shifts between the two, from refined language to completely exaggerated satire, with several of the actors rapidly switching characters (including that of a horse) from one of the intertwined storylines to the next. And the annoying grocer couple continues to disrupt the performance throughout its entirety, with more suggestions as to how it should proceed and talking to the characters as if they were real people in need of help or guidance. It’s not always easy to follow the fiasco of a play, or to keep up with all the non-stop nonsense, but who cares? The point, as the closing song tells us, is to “do it with joy/And with laughter and mirth” and “Just take a moment/To let yourself smile” (music and lyrics by Paul L. Coffey).
The ensemble cast of ten – Coffey, Jessie Austrian, Royer Bockus, Tina Chilip, Devin E. Haqq, Teresa Avia Lim, Darius Pierce, Ben Steinfeld, Paco Tolson, and Tatiana Wechsler, many of whom are Fiasco company members or have worked with them previously – are fully committed to the madcap romp and are clearly having fun following the advice we’re given in “Laughter and Mirth.” All have their time in the spotlight, as masters of both the classic verse and the zany antics, and of the songs, instruments, and sound effects. Also of note is Noah Brody’s zany fight choreography, executed with gusto by the actors.
And the design team plays a key role in the production, with costumes by Yvonne Miranda that distinguish between the lavish period style of The London Merchant and the slovenly modern clothes worn by the characters of The Knight, and props by Samantha Shoffner that are more elegant for the former and makeshift for the latter (including a metal bowl for the Knight’s helmet and a trashcan lid for his shield). The set by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader efficiently suggests the different locales (from the historic architecture and furnishings to a forest and even Moldavia!), and Reza Behjat’s lighting enhances the moods of the scenes.
If you’re a fan of Elizabethan comedy and would like to experience a rarely staged work, or are just in the mood for an escapist evening of ridiculous merriment, methinks this is the show for you.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle plays through Saturday, May 13, 2023, at Red Bull Theater and Fiasco Theater, performing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $77-112, including fees), go online. Masks are required at Monday evening and Saturday matinee performances.