Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Knight of the Burning Pestle

The first ever American Shakespeare Center (then Shenandoah Shakespeare Express) performance I saw was Francis Beaumont's The Knight of the Burning Pestle in September 1999 at my alma mater. I was somewhat of an unwilling attendant, as I was dragged there by my then fiancee. The theater we saw it in was ancient, cramped, uncomfortable, and packed. The air conditioning was also broken and it was near 90 degrees inside! I'd also had some food that made me uncomfortable, so you see where this is going. I had never heard of the play and I couldn't follow it at all. It was very confusing to me and I was basically lost from the get-go.

Well, here we are a little over 10 years later and I'm probably as big a fan of the ASC as you can find. Still, when I saw that this was on the slate, I was a bit apprehensive, even with the always great Rick Blunt in the title role. To help myself, I recently read the play, but I must say it was not an easy play to follow. You basically have competing casts (with assumed names) & a few different story lines and it's just generally confusing. Having notes definitely helped, but I can see why I was a lost fool the first time I saw it. There were several people in the audience this time that were as dumbfounded as I when I saw it in 1999. This time it was much easier for me to follow, especially since I had read the play, though had I not I think I may have been in dire straits.

I was sitting in the second row and I saw Rick, Ginna Hoben, and Curt Foy come in and take their seats in the 7th row or thereabouts. When the pre-show began and the show was announced as The London Merchant, I noticed some folks looking a bit confused. After the play began Curt, as the Grocer George jumped up and protested about something going on on stage. I noticed one lady was enraged at what was going on and I was about to die watching her. Anyway, you can see where the play can be confusing for the uninitiated and I wouldn't suggest a theater newbie pick this as their first theater going experience. For a veteran it's a much better time. There is all kinds of hilarity and Ginna Hoben is brilliant as the catty, whiney, totally bourgeois Grocer's wife, Nell. Anytime you can see Ginna stretch her comedic legs is a treat, and she's in all her glory here. Foy is also great as the bombastic, & somewhat henpecked George. Other standouts include Aidan O'Reilly as Mr. Merrythought/Indigo Toad (he also plays George the Dwarf); Jamie Nelson as Venturewell/Kenneth T. Umbrage/Tim the Squire; Josh Carpenter as Jasper/Dieter von Pilsner; and David Zimmerman as Michael, Jasper's bratty younger (toddler/giant baby?) brother. The star of the show however is Blunt as Rafe. He dominates the stage in this role and had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand.

This was a quiet crowd, and a small one, and much older than the typical ASC crowd, and it was a matinee and I think that affected everyone. Still, I thought the troupe did a great job. If anything was disappointing it was the crowd, and I always feel like the audience is an extra performer and can take a show to the next level. I think I would like to see another performance of the play, perhaps on a Friday or Saturday night with a large crowd. Hopefully we'll get back up and see it again.


Rick Blunt as Rafe in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

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