The Knight of the Burning Pestle is really a mash-up of a farcical comedy, and a play called The London Merchant that is trying to take place in the background, I mean foreground. Well, I don’t really know anymore, it fast-paced and hard to follow. And the burning pestle might be a phallic reference but if it is on fire, maybe he should see a doctor.
The basic plot is this: An acting troupe is trying to stage a play called the London Merchant. London Merchant is about a girl named Luce who is love with Jaspar, but her father has selected a bumbling idiot, Humphrey, for her to marry, and she is not having it. But they are interrupted by a Grocer, his wife, and his apprentice Rafe who not only tell them their play is wrong, but come up on stage and insert themselves into the action. The Grocer and Wife take up residence on the stage, and constantly interrupt the action while making up madcap adventures for their apprentice Rafe, who takes on his fictional identity, The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Rafe gets to carry a phallic staff and penis laden shield. Because, nothing is funnier than making fun of people when they don’t know they are the butt of the joke.
The staging of this one is particularly odd, because all of the actors were seated on stage for the duration of the show. It requires them to be present, even when they aren’t acting, which is quite a feat. It means no rest for any of these people. Some of them were very enthusiastic about their laughter and astonishment, but as the show went on into hour two, a few closed their eyes and checked out a bit. It seems a tremendous task for actors, and I don’t understand why they can’t just go back stage in their lulls to get water or sit on something other than a rather uncomfortable looking stool.
The sheer joy of the night is Cherly J. Campo as Old Merrythought. Her modern songs with killer dance moves and general disregard for anyone’s worries, lest of all her nagging wife, are worth the price of admission. She is glorious answering in Bruno Mars lyrics, she is amazing Dancing By Herself, and mesmerizing with any and all classic 90s tunes. Do you do parties? Call me.
Kerry Brady and David Forrer play the Grocer and wife, and have the task of constantly interrupting the play with comments and complaints. They are fun to watch, but repetitive, and perhaps need more antics than drinking and fanning while watching the nonsense unfold. They are the best kind of people, full of themselves and blissfully unaware that they aren’t actually intelligent or high class.
Adam Henricksen has the double duty of playing Jaspar, a love interest of Luce in the London Merchant, and George the dwarf- silly joke he’s like 6’3”- the Knight’s assistant. This seemed like an odd doubling- there were other actors available. It is just appeared hard to keep switching and being your own nemesis. Kendra Shapanus does costumes again for this production, and Adam has a small vest he puts on to be the dwarf. And althought it is tiny, it is also hard for him to get in and out of, and it is black on a dark blue shirt, almost impossible to see from the audience. It seems like a lot of work for little pay off in the character switch.
Jim Knost plays the father, Venturewell, who wants to marry his daughter Luce off to a man despite her efforts to choose someone else. Of course, Daddy’s pick is silly from the get go, not the shining tall man she chooses in Henrickson. Knost’s shining moment of the night is when she plays princess Pomponia, and I don’t want to tell you all the secrets, you have to see this one for yourself.
Amber Lipman plays a variety of characters, but predominantly the son Michael, younger sibling to Jaspar. She mostly wanders with mom Laura Weeldreyer as Mrs. Merrythought. I know it is a farce, I know they are all over-acting, but the blinky big eyes and drawn in cheeks got a bit hard to watch after some time. Mrs. Merrythought might be the only sane person in the play who has no time for all the disturbances to her mission. Weeldreyer does not seem to suffer fools lightly and has about enough of this nonsense.
Warren Harris is delightful as Rafe, the Grocer’s apprentice. He plays the glib naïve youngster with all the wonderment and passion required. He seems oblivious of others jabs, and that he is carrying phallic symbols around. Katie Rey Bogban plays the host and Humphrey, the chosen suitor for Luce. Her antics and general silliness read well and she is joy to watch frolic.
Jackie Madejski plays Luce, whose costume again was a bit odd with the white shield sewn to the robe. Her toe points and “alas” fainting arm over her forehead was cute. Sarah Robinson as Boy and Prologue was mocking in all the right ways, and Yamaelis Rosas-Sanchez is a lovely placard girl, reminiscient of ring girls in wrestling.
Tom Delise is a sticklier for the language. He keeps a steady pace and wants actors to find the richness and cadence and really lean into it. I wonder though if some of the dick jokes would have landed better if the actors were allowed to slow down and emphasize more of the punchlines. I felt like there was so much going on, and I lost some of it in the quick shuffle to move forward at a good clip.
And despite that swift delivery, the second Act really seemed to drag. The first act was funny, quick, and pointed. But post intermission, it seemed to stall a bit and the energy drug a bit to the point that even that actors on stage were yawning. Since liberties were taken with city centered information to make it specific to Baltimore, maybe a bit of editing on the back end would have behooved the show overall?
As always, the pre-show music and intermission were a delightful addition to the play. The renditions of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” and Lizzo’s “Juice” were particularly toe tapping.
All in all, I would never have read of stumbled upon a production of this show if BSF were not presenting it. Knight is a classical comedy, and some of it lands, some of it misses. The actors are dedicated and serious, the music is always on point, and the audience is receptive despite some missteps.
SHOUD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? BSF is presenting this Shakespeare contemporary farce for the first time in Baltimore. The jokes and choices for this production leave a bit of unanswered ambiguity, but the show has some beautiful moments. Go see it for the beauty and music, just get a drink at intermission, Act 2 is a doozy. (I)
Running November 1-24 at Baltimore Shakespeare Factory. Running time 2 hours and thrity minutes with one musical intermission.