When did audience members become so wanton and disorderly? Since theaters reopened a year and a half ago, reports of fights, vomiting, public urination, public sex, and the verbal and physical abuse of staff have proliferated. Early in April, police were called to a theater in Britain hosting “The Bodyguard,” because some ticket holders wouldn’t stop singing along, precipitating a near riot. And on Monday night, at the Lucille Lortel Theater in the West Village, a grocer and his wife stormed the stage — well, maybe she didn’t storm so much as prance on up — to demand that the company revise its show and hire their apprentice, too. Is there an usher in the house?
Of course, this particular disruption was planned more than 400 years ago. It’s right there in the script of Francis Beaumont’s “The Knight of the Burning Pestle,” a tricksy, loopy, wildly self-referential 1607 play that parodies both city comedy and chivalric romance. Excepting the uptown revival of “Camelot,” these aren’t genres with a lot of currency. But Red Bull Theater and Fiasco, the co-creators of this revival, don’t seem overly concerned. Keep the jokes popping, keep the songs coming, the directors Noah Brody and Emily Young seem to believe, and the contemporaneity will take care of itself.
When the play begins, a troupe of actors, costumed in skirts and breeches that gesture toward the Elizabethan, are about to put on a new show, “The London Merchant.” George (Darius Pierce) interrupts them. He doesn’t think that local business owners have been represented fairly by the theater. With the help of his wife, Nell (Jesse Austrian, a Fiasco founder and a cherry bomb of comedy), he forces them to remake the piece with a grocer as its hero. So Rafe (Paco Tolson) is transformed into the Knight of the Burning Pestle, a cavalier with a colander for a helmet and a pestle for a sword.
The problem with topical comedy, even backward-looking topical comedy like this, is that the references don’t always survive. That’s true enough here. What’s also true is that the play within the play — the story of a merchant, a daughter, the daughter’s lover — isn’t so engrossing. It also includes a scene in which the lover, Jasper (Devin E. Haqq) threatens to murder the daughter, Luce (Teresa Avia Lim), in order to test her devotion. It’s a frightening moment and categorically abusive. The comedy can’t contain it.
But the adventures of the knight and his horse (Royer Bockus) and squire (Ben Steinfeld) are beautifully silly. The interruptions of the grocer and his wife are better still, especially when Nell is pulled onstage to play a pan-Slavic princess who talks like Dracula. Best of all, though, is the Fiasco mien, which favors a giddy, affable, let’s-put-on-a-show quality. The actors are clearly enjoying themselves (Steinfeld, who sings most of his lines, often accompanied by Bockus and the actor and multi-instrumentalist Paul L. Coffey, even more than the rest). And their performances carry with them a swaggering sense of rehearsal room experimentation and delight. They seem to be performing for the sheer pleasure of it, with the audience a welcome afterthought.
This probably explains their attraction to “The Knight of the Burning Pestle,” however antiquated and rickety. It’s a satire of theater that is also a valentine to it, to the transport of becoming swept up into a play, to the wonder of seeing someone just like you onstage. Or as in the case of Nell, playing a part yourself. It’s an invitation to all of us: To put on our colanders, take up our kitchen implements and give ourselves over to make-believe.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle
Through May 13 at the Lucille Lortel Theater, Manhattan; redbulltheater.com. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.
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