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Theatre in Review: The Knight of the Burning Pestle (Red Bull Theater/Fiasco Theater)

Teresa Avia Lim, Tina Chilip, Devin E. Haqq, Ben Steinfeld, Royer Bockus, Paul L. Coffey, Paco Tolson, Tatiana Wechsler (seated), Jessie Austrian, Darius Pierce. Photo: Carol Rosegg

In the most delightful moment of the new production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre -- indeed, on any stage in New York just now -- the cast assembles, complete with guitar and ukelele, for an effervescent rendition of Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave." Leading them is the bespectacled deadpan comic performer Royer Bockus, positively fizzing over with a sense of fun and goodwill. It's a moment of easy, relaxed charm, so valuable to have and so difficult to achieve. At that moment, the spirit of mischief is afoot, and we're glad to be included.

There's quite a lot of misbehaving going on stage at the Lortel, all with the aim of enlivening this rarely seen comedy by Francis Beaumont, best-known as the front half of Beaumont and Fletcher, the seventeenth-century Kaufman and Hart. The author is in good hands: Red Bull Theater regularly trades in such rarities and curios, and the members of Fiasco Theater are experts are goosing up classics with little jolts of contemporary humor. On the face of it, The Knight of the Burning Pestle should be catnip for academics, hard-core theatre fans, and anyone interested in the Jacobean era.

Yet the truly laugh-provoking moments are all interpolations and bits of comic business that might profitably be added to a dozen different plays. ("Let's Misbehave," for example.) They include the announcement of a musical composition titled "The Winds of Gowanus;" an actor (the unfailingly amusing Bockus) portraying a horse, futilely trying to pick up a shield with her hooves; and a Russian-accented vamp pouring all her passion into each glottal stop. Admittedly, not everything has been imported: In a real believe-it-or-not moment, a discussion of alchemy is terminated when someone says, "Believe me, sir, that will not do so well, 'tis stale." Another character adds, "It has been had before at the Red Bull." An in-joke added for an easy laugh? Not at all; you'll find it Beaumont.

Such moments, however, largely function as distractions from the lumbering text, written to spoof the British theatre scene of 1607 while taking a few pokes at the literature of chivalry. It may also be the first metatheatrical work. The company enters and announces its intention to stage a comedy titled The London Merchant. (Confusingly, the actual and quite popular play bearing that title wasn't written for another century.) Before the action gets underway, the stage is invaded by George and Nell, a middle-class couple who, taking seats at stage left, kibitz all night long. What they want to see onstage is...themselves, presented heroically. "I will have a grocer, and he shall do admirable things," George says, with no small satisfaction. That would be Rafe, an apprentice, who gets caught up in various adventures, military and romantic, often with a colander on his head.

Thus, the plot of The London Merchant, a mechanical roundelay of lovers and intriguers, is altered, not especially amusingly, by the insertion of this minor-league Quixote, resulting in an epically disjointed evening that jolts from beguiling to tedious and back again; meanwhile, the actors grab their laughs by any means possible. Co-directors Noah Brody and Emily Young are adept at handling individual moments, but they have no long game to play, no overarching vision; they end up with a show that wanders badly in search of a purpose.

This is not to diminish the abundantly gifted cast. With a face out of a Hogarth etching and his roaring manner, Darius Pierce is robustly comic as George; he partners nicely with Jessie Austrian as Nell, annoying the actors by rattling a bag of candy at the most inopportune moments and getting dragged into the action as the tempting "Princess of Cracovia." Paco Tolson is cheerfully oblivious as Rafe, wielding his kitchen implement like a fearsome weapon. Teresa Avia Lim applies her considerable skills to one of those put-upon heroines, unhappily affianced and desperate for liberty. Ben Steinfeld reliably stirs up trouble as Mr. Merrythought, banning his wife from the house while assiduously pursuing a good time with others; he also produces some astonishing non-verbal vocals, delivering what might be called Jacobean beatboxing.

Set designers Christopher Swader and Justin Swader have placed these random doings in a tavern-like atmosphere defined by an upstage wall of weathered wood planks on which is painted the London skyline, with a battery of lanterns and chandeliers hanging overhead. Taking his cue from the latter, Reza Behjat creates warm amber washes suggestive of candlelight, adding splashes of color as needed. Yvonne Miranda's costumes, which borrow from two centuries, creating a look that is both casually and willfully anachronistic.

Yet, for all the skill expended on it, this remains a scattershot evening, a series of comic improvisations that don't mesh with the text, let alone illuminate it. Maybe Beaumont had better luck when he teamed up with Fletcher. --David Barbour

(28 April 2023)

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