RISE UP! The Knight of the Burning Pestle has plenty of phallic humor . AARON FLACKE
We in the modern world may have reality TV, American Idol, and an abundance of art about art, but hi-lo cultural debates, the tyranny of a mass audience, and meta-theater are really nothing new. Take Shakespeare contemporary Francis Beaumont's The Knight of the Burning Pestle. In this slight satire, gamely directed by Patrick Flick for the Theater at Monmouth, two well-meaning Citizens of 1600s London derail a conventional Elizabethan comedy and recreate it in their own image.
What the Citizen (Bill Van Horn), who is a grocer, and the Citizen's Wife (Grace Bauer) demand of their theater is simple and primal: that it celebrate their city and themselves. And so, much to the dismay, bemusement, and ire of the actors, the Citizens buy and bellow their way into getting the grocer's earnest, shy young apprentice, Rafe (Max Waszak), on stage as a noble grocer-knight-errant who bears, yes, the crest of the Burning Pestle, with the titular phallic tool on his chest and in his hand.
Mister and Missus Citizen are jovial, bawdy, matter-of-fact fun in the hands of Van Horn and Bauer. They snicker, cheer, and hiss, shout out exposition to characters misled by dramatic irony, pass out licorice and ginger to favored players, and call out devotedly for their Rafe. The Citizens don't like the romantic hero Jasper (Alexander Harvey), who plans to elope with his beloved, Luce (Aislinn Kerchaert, vivaciously), preferring his pompous rival Humphrey (Mike Anthony, with puffy small-man humor), and who has the blessing of Luce's father, Venturewell (James Noel Hoban, playing an actor who probably aches to be playing Lear). The Citizens inexplicably sympathize with Jasper's crabby, miserly mom, Mistress Merrythought (Janis Stevens), who loves only her younger son Michael (Simon Kiser) and his inheritance, and who absconds with both to escape her ponderously merry, constantly singing husband (Mark S. Cartier, hammily). The Citizens love a good skirmish. Just as a theatergoer settles into a soliloquy of nuanced language by the subtle and comely Jasper, the Citizens' box emits a loud snoring.
And how do the actors handle this whole vox populi thing? The variation in their reactions is actually among the most interesting things to watch. Jasper's actor tries gracefully and professionally to ignore them until his irritation gets the best of him, while the guy playing Venturewell glowers right at them, hands on hips, as they suggest new plot points. Humphrey's player at first wrings his handkerchief and is thrown off his lines, but later hams it up for the doting Missus, and the woman playing Mistress Merrythought, clearly a bit of a diva, is initially so upset to be sharing a stage with Rafe that she breaks into genuine tears.
Despite these interesting subtleties, though, the fact remains that Pestle is driven by one comedic gimmick of a very broad nature. The pell-mell whims of the charming hoi polloi, however satirically intended by Beaumont, nevertheless result in a rangy show with a lot of intentionally inept, frustrated, or interrupted acting. The slapstick is sometimes sharp (Mistress Merrythought and Michael are pricelessly petulant as they're forced astride Rafe's imaginary "horse"), but the comedy is all broad all the time, and is sometimes stretched (a bit involving a "boy" cast as a suggestive girl, without explanation and to the surprise of all the actors, goes on beyond its time). Imagine if A Midsummer Night's Dream were made up entirely of the Rude Mechanicals' show, and you have an idea of the show's texture.