Review: GROCERS GONE WILD IN KNIGHT OF THE BURNING PESTLE at Independent Shakespeare Company In Griffith Park

Rollicking Beaumont comedy kicks off ISC's summer in Griffith Park

By: Jul. 15, 2022
Review: GROCERS GONE WILD IN KNIGHT OF THE BURNING PESTLE at Independent Shakespeare Company In Griffith Park

She quotes Shakespeare, she eeks out little children, she breaks hearts and fells monsters. Gracefully and unapologetically, she upends your regularly-scheduled programming. Her life is a quest; her death operatic. Perhaps most importantly, in everything she does, she brings honor to grocery workers everywhere. She is the Grocer Errant, AKA the Knight of the Burning Pestle. Played by Bukola Ogunmola, she may be found exploiting her exploits in Griffith Park in the Independent Shakespeare Company's (ISC's) production of THE NIGHT OF THE BURNING PESTLE, a family-friendly night of great fun. ISC's unique brand of Shakespeare in the park has long been a summertime favorite for Angelenos of all ages. PESTLE is a work of Francis Beaumont, not the Bard, but as adapted and staged by director Melissa Chalsma, this loopy bit of play-within-a-play meta is every bit a comic winner.

There we all are on our blankets and lawn chairs, primed to take in a stodgy comedy called THE LONDON MERCHANT when some late-arriving fellow audience members decide to rewrite the menu. Barely two minutes into the action, loudmouthed Trader Joe's merchants George (played by David Melville) and his wife Nell (Sabra Williams) declare they are done, done, DONE with high-concept fare. They want a play with and for common folks, for grocers like themselves. They'll even supply the grocer to insert into the play: the aforementioned Rae. Nonplussed and bullied, the LONDON MERCHANT company members allow Rae to take the stage and accede to every one of George's increasingly loppy dramatic demands...all the while proceeding with the play they have come to stage.

In THE LONDON MERCHANT, we've got apprentice Jasper Merrythought (Kelvin Morales), in love with Luce (Carene Mekertichyan), the daughter of his merchant master Sir Venturewell (Richard Azurdia). When he learns of this alliance, Venturewell dismisses Jasper who nonetheless schemes to woo Luce away from Venturewell's preferred suitor, the dandified Humphrey (Patrick Batiste) who Nell thinks is just swell.

All is not well in the Merrythought household, where Mister Merrythought (William Elsman), true to his name, is determined to carelessly fritter away every farthing he owns, all the while carousing with friends and singing snippets of contemporary pop tunes (he'd fit right in down the 101 at MOULIN ROUGE). His exasperated wife, Mistress Merrythought (Amanda Hootman) grabs what little money remains and heads to the forest with her younger son, Michael (Aaron Allen). There are also squires, cats, innkeepers, stage managers and princesses all of whom meet up with Grocer Errant Rae or with George and Nell, the buttinski grocers steering the action from the audience.

It's all quite daffy and occasionally a skosh hard to follow, but just go with it, and you'll be fine. As the blustering George, simultaneously trying to appease his wife, his apprentice and his audience, Melville is essentially the advocate of us, the everyday theatergoer. He's good for a laugh pretty much anytime he opens his mouth, and he's got some juicy henpecked, "honey-do" chemistry working with Williams.

As they are burdened with increasingly oddball dramatic demands, The MERCHANT company members prove themselves both resourceful and adaptable. Granted, there is a certain amount of eye-rolling and push-back against the grocers, but once the actors realize that resistance is futile and that THE LONDON MERCHANT must be grocer-ed, they get into the spirit of things. Hootman's double duty work is particularly strong as the put-upon Mistress Merrythought and the Princess of Krakovia, a romantic interest that George and Nell demand be inserted for Rae.

Unlike Shakespeare, his contemporary, Beaumont doesn't do terribly well by his women, putting Mistress Merrythought and Luce through the wringer, but in updating the tale, adaptor/director Chalsma has made certain that the women of MERCHANT/PESTLE have plenty of backbone. And, of course, she is greatly aided in this endeavor by Hootman, Mekertichyan and especially Ogunmola.

ISC productions have long been notable for their inventiveness, musicality and the intelligence of their stagecraft. PESTLE is not a play about warriors and kings. We're watching blue collar-class actors put on a show, and Chalsma's production brandishes its working-stiff industriousness like the badge of honor that it is down to its call-out for the rights of grocers. The period-contemporary mishmash of costumes fashioned by Ruoxuan Li and Yasamin Sarabipour strike the right tone. And when Rae is called upon to battle a giant, through the technical finesse of the production team, battle a giant. she most certainly does.

Regular visitors to the ISC festival will have to climb the hill past the Old Zoo in Griffith Park and venture a little further to reach the new staging area for summer of 2022. While ISC waits for the construction of its long-promised permanent stage, the festival grounds for this year's offerings (which will soon include MACBETH) are cozier than their former digs, with improved sightlines but, alas, less space for audience members. Reservations are now required (take this seriously; even if you're going gratis, space will be snapped up).

Considering the battering that the arts have taken due to the pandemic, the ability of any company to offer free entertainment - especially of this quality - is worthy of multiple huzzahs. That said, at performance's end, ISC players pass the orange donations buckets so that, with our help, they can continue to pay their company members. They may be offering "Shakespeare set Free," but Angelenos should continue to fill up those buckets. The product is well worth it, and your neighborhood cashier from Joe The Trader would wholeheartedly approve.

THE KNIGHT OF THE BURNIONG PESTLE plays through July 31 in Griffith Park. MACBETH begins performances Aug. 6.

Photo of L-R Bukola Ogunmola, Amanda Hootman and Aaron Allen courtesy of Grettel Cortes Photography



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