Francis Beaumont, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Renaissance Center Theater Company, Amherst, MA

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Francis Beaumont, after Francis Kyte; Unknown artist, mezzotint, circa 1740s
Francis Beaumont, after Francis Kyte; Unknown artist, mezzotint, circa 1740s

Francis Beaumont, The Knight of the Burning Pestle
Director: Nathaniel Leonard
Renaissance Center Theater Company
The Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

October 11th, 2009

Among plays about the theater, Beaumont’s Knight of the Burning Pestle stands out for its sheer lunatic energy. First staged around 1607, this Knight is a trove of mocking allusions to the theatrical pieces of the time, particularly the “citizen” plays displaying the bold adventures of London’s apprentice boys and the moralistic, materialistic “prodigal” dramas, in which the wayward learn harsh lessons in thrift and prudence. But even those theater-goers who are not scholars of Renaissance drama, and who have not come across such works as Thomas Heywood’s Four Prentices of London or the London Prodigal (of unknown authorship) can appreciate the over-the-top tour of Shakespearean highlights, particularly one sequence in which we move, at warp speed, from a parody of Romeo and Juliet (in which the apparently deceased lover bolts upright) to one of Macbeth (in which a ghost politely warns of his impending and inconvenient appearance at the dinner table).

The play seems to be a particular favorite of college and university drama departments, and this production by the Renaissance Center Theatre Company suggests why that might be the case. The Knight is a celebration of disruption and disorder. At the start, two locals, the citizen George and his wife Nell, hijack a performance, pulling up their chairs and demanding changes in the program (at one point in the action they will shoo a character off the stage entirely). Into the evening’s planned performance (a work mingling the apprentice and prodigal stories) they add a new hero: their own apprentice grocer Rafe, who becomes the knight of the title and performs various “great feats.”

Director Nathaniel Leonard emphasizes the collapse of formalities. Here George (in Converse high-tops and loud bandanna) and Nell (in an off-the-shoulder Red Sox T-shirt and garish lipstick) seem to have learned audience etiquette from watching Jerry Springer. They drink beer and pass swift judgment on the characters. Clueless as to the drift of the tales that unfold before them—the characters they most abhor will triumph in the end—they occupy themselves thinking up new episodes of fighting or wooing for Rafe. At one point Nell, wrought up to fever pitch, cries out that she “would have something done, and . . . cannot tell what it is,” settling finally for another bout of fighting. As the couple, Ruaidri Johnson and Kathryn Libby are delightfully vulgar and self-important. The ambiguity of these two is key to the success of the play: we must laugh both with and at them, and we do. Tim Monaghan likewise gives a skilled performance as the carefree husband and father Merrithought, striking just the right note here. The Knight was written for a boy company of child actors, and many of the characters do have the quality of children firmly driven by their own needs and desires. Monaghan’s Merrithought is a placid baby of Falstaffian size, sure that all will be well. In a play of frenetic movement, he is a still point at the center.

Much of the movement in the play involves, of course, our “knight” Rafe, the grocer’s apprentice, stomping from one “heroic” action to another. Wilson Zinnurov plays him as a kind of happy jock in a football jersey, his face beaming beneath a colander “helmet.” Vastly pleased to find himself the center of attention, Zinnurov’s Rafe recites his lines loudly and proudly, always with an eye to their heroic effect. He is more of a slacker-prankster than the verse-and-stage besotted apprentice of the text, but the interpretation works. The verse in this play can be tricky, given its various satiric targets; for the most part, the performers handle the lines well (though Rebecca Alexander’s Humphrey occasionally struggles with the daunting heroic couplets). The current performance space at the Renaissance Center is quite small (a “Great Hall” building project is in the works for its future home) and Leonard manages to use the intimate space to good effect: battles between grocer/knights and barber/giants only seem more absurd from a close-up view.

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