Directed by Robert Currier
by Beaumont & Fletcher
The visionary Ralph Cohen, whose dedication and chutzpah led to the building of a stunning recreation of the Blackfriar’s Theatre in Staunton, VA, had been talking up “The Knight of the Burning Pestle” ever since we met him. He promised it was a tremendously funny play that would be outrageous fun to produce. When Ralph revived his production and we had a chance to see it for ourselves, we became
inclined to agree with him. The play is unique. It wouldn’t be until “Six Characters in Search of An Author” that the English-speaking stage again saw such a revolutionary breach of the audience/actor dichotomy.
Lindsay Drummer, Sandra Jardin, Suraya Keating
Managing Director – Lesley Schisgall Currier
*Member of Actor’s Equity Association
The plot is almost impossible to follow. A group of actors is putting on a play called “The London Merchant” when a couple of real merchants from the audience take offense and insist that their apprentice be given a part. They then proceed to make requests — a fight scene, a seduction scene, a May Dance scene, a death scene — as the apprentice, who has been transformed (for no apparent reason that in any way fits with the plot of “The London Merchant”) into the Knight of the Burning Pestle, interrupts the increasingly frustrated “London Merchant” cast with interpolated, “improvised” scenes.
The laughter at times was tsunami-like. Once the audience gave in to their confusion, they were (literally) rolling in the aisles. Each performance, the Knight chose a lady-love from the audience; we had a jealous husband almost ready to beat up the puckering Darren, a woman who shimmied, and one who lifted up her shirt and flashed the audience. As I mentioned, this play is unique. (And maybe so are our Marin audiences!)
Many of the critics thought the play was too silly, and one complained that the actors were having too much fun. When the (equally unique) Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, was in town with his family and chose to see this little-done Jacobean play, we were biting our fingernails. We’re still not sure what Dana thought of the performance, but his teenage son Ted claimed “it was the most ‘entertaining’ play he had ever seen.” It was certainly a production that everyone involved with won’t soon forget.
When I first saw a performance of The Knight of the Burning Pestle back in university, I thought it was a complete hoot, undoubtedly freely adapted by some of my peers in the spirit of the 1960’s. A 2003 production by Shenandoah Shakespeare at the glorious Blackfriars Theatre in Staunton, Virginia reminded me of this rarely produced gem which, again, seemed highly contemporized. Upon finding the script in a dusty tome of “Elizabethan and Jacobean Plays,” I was amazed to discover that both productions I had seen were surprisingly true to both the spirit and the words of the text.
Our production is true to the spirit of 17th Century theatre in its use of contemporary popular songs and locally referential in-jokes. The bulk of what you will hear tonight was, however, actually written during Shakespeare’s lifetime. As you can see, it’s not dead yet.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle – whether written solely by Francis Beaumont (1586-1616) or jointly with John Fletcher (1579-1625), Shakespeare’s co-author on Henry VIII, Cardenio, and Two Noble Kinsmen and, some say, hand-picked successor as lead playwright to the King’s Men – was something completely different for its time. It is the earliest burlesque (defined as “an artistic composition…that, for the sake of laughter, vulgarizes lofty material or treats ordinary material with mock dignity.”) It is considered a mock-heroic comedy, obviously influenced in part by Cervantes’ recently published heroic adventure Don Quixote(1605.)
Audiences in 1607 did not know what to make of it. Its first publisher in 1613 declared that “this unfortunate child was written in 8 days and exposed to the wide world who utterly rejected it.” In fact, not until the Restoration in 1688 did it find an audience sophisticated enough to appreciate its satirical vulgarity. The first leading lady of the English stage, Nell Gwynn, enjoyed great success in the role of Luce. It has received sporadic revivals since then and I like to believe was the spiritual forerunner of such modern parodies as Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail. As Eric Idle pointed out recently at the premiere of Spamalot, “it is once again a good time for intelligent folk to get silly.” So now for something completely different…enjoy The Knight of the Burning Pestle.
“Silliness prevails….a rare opportunity to sample some of the diversity of stage offerings in Shakespeare’s day….Currier attempts to amplify the comedy by making it more contemporary and much more zany. He’s streamlined the text, excising the more esoteric material, and replaces the arcane local references with Marin equivalents and the many songs with snippets of rock, country, pop, show and even calypso tunes – generally to good effect….George Maguire… deliver[s] his punch lines with deadly accuracy as the company manager playing the merchant Venturewell. So does the invaluable Jarion Monroe as the bibulous, happy-go-lucky Merrythought….Julian Lopez-Morillas is a model aged hippie George, in tie-dye and gray ponytail. Linda Paplow is very funy as a Nell alternately outraged, smitten and overwhelmed by her first experience of live theater. Darren Bridgett has a field day as a naïve, congenial Ralph, comically dazzled by his stage debut….There’s some very funny stuff in this ‘Pestle,’ including many of the songs and some of the topical humor. There are some obvious bawdy pestle jokes, as well.”
Rob Hurwitt, San Francisco Chronicle
“It began with Marin Shakespeare Artistic Director Bob Currier brandishing a tumescent organic zucchini while exhorting the crowd on opening night to buy raffle tickets, and continued through the pratfalls of garishly costumed circus folk putting on a Jacobean play-within-a-play-within-a…the explosions of mirth, I mean; giggles, laughter, screeches and howls of unending mirth in answer to the unalloyed schtick and silliness of The Knight of the Burning Pestle.”
Ken Bullock, The Commuter Times
“Mister Currier is to be recognized for letting his genius, and the genius of his cast and crew, out of the bottle: indeed, he has thrown away the cork. To see what comedy entertainment would be like if Westinghouse had never invented the television and if directors were not nebbish auteurs, get thee to ‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle.’
Jeffrey R. Smith, Bay Area Critics Circle
“Family comedy gets a turn on Marin stages this summer, and kids of all ages are enjoying the fun. Colorful clowns set the pace, even serious actors get clownish and audience members participate in sing-alongs and are brought onstage as performers….It must have worked [in the 17th century.] And it still works in the 21st.”
Lee Brady, Pacific Sun
“…creativity and true originality…”
Olga Azar, Marin Scope
“The Knight’s cast is a complete comic delight. Each tries to out camp the other with exaggerated movements, pratfalls, groaners and great zingers relating to today. Darren Bridgett is a delight to watch. His ambidexterity is amazing. His confusion in the play is positively brilliant. He has the best and most funny death scene that I have seen in ages. George Maguire matches Bridgett’s comic ability….A very close third is Jarion Monroe, dressed in an outlandish balloon clown outfit singing with great vocal chops. He brings down the house every time he appears on the stage….Robert Currier brilliantly directs this super outrageous parody of the Don Quixote legend mixed a little with many of the Bard’s romantic plays. He has assembled a top flight cast of comedy actors to make this one side-splitting merrymaking evening.”
Richard Connema, Talkin’ Broadway
“…pure silly fun…”
David Kashima, Bay Area Critics Circle
“Robert Currier…is at his best with this kind of outrageous silliness.” Annette Lust, West of Twin Peaks Observer