Director Melissa Chalsma celebrates the diversity of Elizabethan playwrights by unearthing Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Beaumont, along with his co-writer John Fletcher, took the reins of Shakespeare’s company upon his retirement.
These writers came along just as taste in theater was changing from the travails of kings and queens to those of the shop-keepers and apprentices, who more accurately mirrored the audience. Some of Beaumont’s original script shows the influence of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote,” which had just been published in 1605. The Knight of the Burning Pestle, in turn, is a spoof on Thomas Hedley’s melodramatic Four ‘Prentices of London; so you might call it a play-within-a-play-within a play. And fun it is, too.
Co-artistic director, David Melville plays George, the grocer, who, with his wife, Nell (Sabra Williams) and apprentice, Rae (Bukola Ogunmola), decides that the double plot on hand has not enough sword-fighting or derring do, and urges Rae to enter the action and provide the excitement as the “knight of the burning pestle.”
The bare bones of the plot, such as it is, involves an apprentice named Jasper (Kevin Morales) who is in love with his master’s beauteous daughter, Luce (Carene Mekertichyan), who is betrothed to Humphrey (Patrick Batiste). At George’s stage-side urging, Rae takes it upon herself to try to rescue Luce and carry her away for Jasper’s benefit. With every new suggestion from the Grocer and his wife, Nell, the actors have to stand aside or try to work around Rae’s ridiculous efforts at chivalry.
Part of the charm of Chalsma’s update comes from her innovative incorporation of a 21st century soundtrack, making the comedy perhaps the first musical to traverse four centuries. The three threads of actions are a bit more muddled. The exigencies of a limited budget for costumes by Ruoxuan Li and Yasamin Sarabipour and lighting by Bosco Flanagan (plug for donations), make delineating the two older plot lines less clear. What’s more, casting a female apprentice as the Knight limits the vulgar yet comedic references in the original (what is a burning pestle, anyway?).
Still, it’s a pastiche of past and present that is so much fun, audience will forgive the sometimes rag-tag entrances from around, behind, and through the tiny make-shift stage. Coming soon, with our help (second plug for donations), ISCLA will inhabit its own, permanent space at Griffith Park.
Knight of the Burning Pestle performs outdoors at the Dell in Griffith Park, Wednesdays through Sundays at 7 pm until July 31st. Go to ISCLA.org to register for a specific performance, but attendance is free. See the ISCLA.org website for parking and directions to the site.