Burning Pestle Neither Hot nor Bright

The Queens Players present (apparently for the second time around) a seldom-produced comedy by Francis Beaumont,The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Despite all the noisy clamor and much running about, a cast that does not lack talent fails to make the case for this revival. A theater company is about to begin its presentation of “The London Merchant” when a rich grocer and his wife noisily disrupt the proceedings and insist that they not only insert Rafe, their apprentice, as actor, but also provide a new plot for the evening. The company half-heartedly agrees, while trying to continue the performance of their play, a hackneyed domestic comedy which contains elements of Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Inserted into this story are the disruptions of the noisy grocer and his noisier wife, and the plot performed by their apprentice and his two helpers, a Don Quixote-like play about the Knight of the Burning Pestle and his adventures. The stories occasionally cross paths, with the company attempting to keep the apprentice off-stage as best they can, with little success.

Director Richard Mazda, working with a large cast of actors of varying comedic skills, attempts to bridge the several divides which separate us from this piece by encouraging his actors to perform in the most broadly farcical style they can muster. This creates a number of problems: The mugging acting style erases the distinction between the three story centers that collide here and deprives the play of its bones. The eclectic choices and contemporary touches, performed with great skill by some (notably the comedically talented Alexander Styne), and the wildly divergent performance styles set up separate worlds for individual characters without these “worlds” ever coming together as an ensemble performing a single play.

The humor Beaumont finds in the burning pestle, making its appearance here as a wooden phallus mostly attached to Rafe’s belt, and the double meaning of the burning pestle as a symbol of sexual prowess as well as of syphillis, might be great fun to explore with teenagers, but such “bawdiness” no longer provides the humorous punch it may have once possessed.

Mazda dresses his actors mostly in moderd duds with some hints at "period" (short capes, hats etc.). The grocer's and his wife's costumes are the most elaborately period-suggestive. Here, as in the acting approach, the director misses an opportunity to distinguish the three groups of characters that are at odds in this play. The empty space set (with pieces that are rolled on and off by the actors) works well, as does the eclectic mix of props (Alexander Styne rides in, in his first entrance, on a child's tricycle), though again, the eclecticism does not support the structures of the play but simply adds random schtick to individual characters.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a much drawn-out evening (at over two and a half hours, despite the economical, empty stage setting which allows for quick scene transitions), where the actors work furiously at their various comic bits to a mostly stone-faced audience. The impression is that of an under-conceptualized production that relies on the text as given by Beaumont, in a production that is painfully overacted and fails to make a case for its existence.

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