BWW Reviews: KNIGHT OF THE BURNING PESTLE at the Theater at Monmouth keeps the Laughter 'Burning' Bright
Whether it be live theatre or cinema, most theatergoers are looking for entertainment and often an escape. We buy our tickets, step through the lobby and enter a dimly lit space waiting with expectations of entertainment; comedy, drama, musical, horror, what have you. Every once in a while, the silence in the theatre is broken by "that person"; the annoying audience member who feels the need to comment on the action or talk back to the performers. They are usually met with disdain, constant "shooshing", and often removal from the theatre. However, Francis Beaumont's comedic masterpiece written nearly 400 years ago not only makes these "annoying" talkback artists part of the show, it makes his work timeless and hilarious.
Beaumont's KNIGHT was first performed in 1607 and first published in 1613. It is the first play that is a parody almost in it's entirety, in English. It satirizes chivalric romances such as that of Romeo and Juliet, and even gives a few nods to the legend of Don Quixote. It's a piece that is well ahead of it's time, incorporating the "show within a show" concept; the audience has arrived at the theatre to see The London Merchant. Audience members Citizen (Bill Van Horn) and his wife (Grace Bauer) have other plans. Unhappy with the story lines of many plays they have partaken in lately, they intend to have the actors incorporate their apprentice Rafe (Max Waszak) into the performance in a storyline of their choosing. And thus, hilarity ensues. The play is renamed as the KNIGHT OF THE BURNING PESTLE (whom Rafe becomes), and while the action of the original play continues, Rafe's secondary storyline appears as he takes on a trusty sidekick Tim (Ambien Mitchell) and a dwarf George (Ryan Simpson). The actors do their best to tell the story of Jasper (Alexander Harvey) and Luce's (Aislinn Kerchaert) star-crossed love amidst plot changes and interruption from Rafe's "new" plot line and constant commentary by the Citizen and his wife. Among the cast of characters are Jasper's father Master Merrythought (Mark S. Cartier), his mother Mistress Merrythought (Janis Stevens) his brother Michael (Simon Kiser, who also doubles as Prologue), Luce's father Venturewell (James Noel Hoban), her would-be suitor Humphrey (Mike Anthony) and appearances in multiple roles by Hannah Daly, Frank Omar, Josh Carpenter and Luke Couzens.
First and foremost, this production is hilarious, and what makes it so is the actors' mastery and understanding of the language and their strength as an ensemble. The Theater at Monmouth (TAM) is a "true" repertory company. Meaning that they cast actors in multiple roles for a full season and once each show opens, by season's end, they are playing a different role in a different show on a daily basis. Not an easy feat for actors or theatres alike these days. Which is why it is so important to have extremely adept actors that can take on these challenging circumstances. If the ensemble cast of KNIGHT is any indication, TAM's 2013 season is one you MUST NOT miss.
Part of the overall experience is stepping into Monmouth's historic Cumston Hall. The building predates the previous century, and is utterly perfect for staging Shakespeare's works, and anything from the classic realm of theatre. The space helps to complete the picture that director Patrick Flick had in mind; taking the audience back to the 17th century, and helping them see what it might have been like to experience this show as it was back then. His seamless direction of each element (the Citizens in watching and commenting on the performance, the original play The London Merchant and Rafe's side story, KNIGHT) make the story and language so accessible to the audience, you'd think they all were classical theatre scholars. Though the set is minimal, it is also perfect for the piece and the theatre alike. This can be attributed to Dan Bilodeau's wonderful set design. Not one bit of the proscenium goes unused by the actors, not even the small boxes on either side of the arch. He got his design just right; though clearly designed in this day and age, it harkens back to a simpler age of stage craft when muslin and wood were king. Splashes of color, simple curtains and portals abound, to make the stage picture complete. Similarly, Lynne Chase's lighting design is very simple and appropriate for the time period, even though clearly electric light did not exist at the shows inception. Use of forest-like gobos (patterned fixtures that are placed in front of lighting instruments to project shadows or shapes onstage) help create change of location and mood, and subtle color changes do the same. Jonna Klaiber's costume design is perhaps best of all. Gorgeous, lavish costumes that not only appropriately suggest each character's role (whether it be the working man's clothes on Citizen and Rafe, or the lavish dresses and bodice worn by Mistress Merrythought), and also dazzle the eye. A feat often hard to accomplish with costumes from a time not often familiar to most people; Ms. Klaiber achieves realism, while at the same time strikes awe in the audience with her costumes.
I hate not singling out any of the actors, but quite frankly, they are all so strong that I would do a disservice to the multi-talented and cohesive ensemble. But....I'll be brief. The Citizens (Bill Van Horn and Grace Bauer) are delightfully funny yet never distracting as they add color commentary from their perch; the always singing Mark S. Cartier as Master Merrythought adds comic relief on top of comic relief each time he appears (amazing that he can remember so many hummable tunes and lyrics). The lovers, Jasper (Alexander Harvey) and Aislinn Kerchaert as Luce are a lovely pair, more than adept in comedy when required and a perfect couple for the story to center around. Janis Stevens' as the scorned wife Mistress Merrythought is fantastic as well. Her contempt for her husband frittering away their money is only equaled by her contempt for the Citizens' constant interruptions. Her son Michael/Prologue (Simon Kiser) brings a youth to the ensemble, and is sidled with the most interruptions by the Citizens; he deals with this through hilariously gritted teeth and a fake smile. Not to be left out are Ambien Mitchell as Tim (her facial contortions and stage fright made me laugh so hard I was crying) and Max Waszak's Rafe who's fish-out-of-water acting is both funny and brilliant.
Please do yourself a favor and make the trip to historic Cumston Hall in Monmouth and sit back while this brilliant ensemble makes you laugh until you cry. KNIGHT OF THE BURNING PESTLE runs throughout the summer on selected days. Please visit www.theateratmonmouth.org for more information on this show and the rest of TAM's fantastic season.
From This Author Scott Moreau