Friday, March 4, 2011

"The Knight of the Burning Pestle" - Grocers Gone Wild!

By Byrne Harrison

The Secret Theatre in Queens has done an admirable job of bringing a not-so-frequently produced classic to life. Their production of Francis Beaumont's The Knight of the Burning Pestle mines the comedy in the script and makes it accessible to a modern audience.

The play features a theatre company putting on a romantic comedy, "The London Merchant," about a young apprentice, Jasper (Philip J. Rossi) in love with his employer's daughter, Lucy (Avery Manuel), over the strenuous objections of the father (Ross Pivec), who has in mind for his daughter a more well-placed gentleman. Standard fare meant to please an audience.

Unfortunately for them, a Grocer (Thom Brown III) and his wife (Helyn Rain Messenger) in the audience aren't having any of it. After berating the company for their choice, they insist that they perform a new play, something heroic... and naturally, they want their apprentice, Rafe (Joshua Warr) to have a starring role. After determining that none of the characters in "The London Merchant" are right for him, he decides to create a new character, the Knight of the Burning Pestle, a hero and slayer of giants, and insert himself into the play. Naturally, his character doesn't fit at all, so as he becomes more involved, the actors in the company must find ways of keeping their play on track without offending the Grocer and his wife.

What follows is a play full of comedy and vexation, that is surprisingly well suited for today's audience.

Director Richard Mazda keeps the focus on the actors by using a very spare set with just a few rolling set pieces to set the scene. The actors are, for the most part, very good in their roles. The Secret Theatre features some young actors who seem somewhat uncomfortable with the language of the play, not enough to detract, but noticable in comparison to some of the more experienced actors. Just as an aside, Mazda is to be commended for creating a company that both produces excellent work and serves as a training ground for younger actors. Without a doubt, the NYC theatre scene is well-served by companies like this.

Standouts among the cast include Alexander Stine as the obnoxiously merry, always singing, and surprisingly wise Master Merrythought, father to Jasper. Equally amazing is Kate Siepert as his shrewish wife, who dotes on her youngest son (Kyrian Friedenberg) while ignoring Jasper. Also amusing is Jonathan Emerson as Humphrey, Lucy's better suited suitor. Emerson provides comic relief with Humphrey's screeching and simpering, but more so as the actor portaying Humphrey as he tries to deal with the Grocer and his wife. His initial exasperation turns into fawning as the Grocer's wife turns her attention on him. Speaking of exasperation, no one in the cast does a better job with this than Kate Siepert, who seems to be set on a constant simmer whenever having to deal with the Grocer's entourage.

As the Grocer and his wife, Thom Brown III and Helyn Rain Messenger are a high point of the show. These are fun, over-the-top characters and both actors are more than ready to meet the challenge. I would like to have seen them interact more with the rest of the audience. I think Mazda missed an opportunity to have them really warm up the audience by having them enter after "The London Merchant" had begun.

Despite a few problems (most notably a rolling set piece that made Ross Pivec nearly impossible to hear during some of his scenes), the show offered plenty of laughs and a nice satire of theatre folks and middle-class taste.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle
By Francis Beaumont
Directed and Produced by Richard Mazda
Stage Manger: Rachel Pfennigwerth
Set design: Richard Mazda
Set Construction: Alex Cape, Randy Warshaw
Props Construction: Zoe Morsette, Rachel Pfennigwerth
Photography: Sean MacBride Murray
Videography: Perry J. Katz
Dramaturgy: Katie Courtien

Featuring: Thom Brown III (Citizen), Helyn Rain Messenger (Nell), Joshua Warr (Rafe), Brian Walters (Boy), Alexander Stine (Master Merrythought), Kate Siepert (Mistress Merrythought), Kyrian Friedenberg (Michael Merrythought), Ross Pivec (Venturewell), Philip J. Rossi (Jasper), Avery Manuel (Lucy), Jonathan Emerson (Humphrey), Shannon Pritchard (George), Ariel Rosen-Brown (Tim/Pompiona), Jacklyn Collier (Tapster), Alex Cape (Host), Randy Warshaw (Barber)

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