The ASC on Tour (known then as Shenandoah Shakespeare Express) helped re-introduce Beaumont's 1607 comic masterpiece to the world by mounting the North American professional premiere of The Knight of the Burning Pestle as part of our 1999 Vaulting Ambition Tour (in rep with Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice). After opening the Blackfriars Playhouse, we produced our second Pestle, this time with our first resident troupe of actors, in 2003. While planning the 2009/10 Rough, Rude, and Boisterous Tour, I thought the time was right once again to unleash Pestle on the road, this time by matching it with Romeo and Juliet and All's Well That Ends Well.
I don't usually traffic in superlatives, but I firmly believe that Pestle is the funniest play (in performance) of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras not written by Shakespeare. It has all of the silliness and wackiness of The Comedy of Errors and The Merry Wives of Windsor combined. And on steroids. Pestle would be remarkable just for being that funny, but it's even more entertaining because of its use of music, the multiple meta-theatrical levels it employs, and the river of good will and message of mirth that run underneath and through the play.
SPOILER ALERT: if you want to be surprised by the silliness we have in store for you, stop reading now (and don't read any of the synopsis bullets in "Stuff That Happens in the Play").
Although music and song play major roles in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and As You Like It (and smaller roles in The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and other plays), Pestle trumps them all. Master Merrythought sings song snippets throughout most of his dialogue; the young lovers burst out into song to express their love to one another like they are part of a modern Broadway musical. Beaumont's text is filled with lyrics from songs that would have been familiar to his audience; in trying to capture the spirit of that original staging notion, we have selected pieces of songs with which our modern audience might be familiar. (All other language - with the exception of play titles and perhaps a few ad libs from the London Merchant actors - is from Beaumont's play.)
Shakespeare helped pioneer the concept of a "play within a play" in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Love's Labour's Lost; once again, Beaumont took this idea and exploded it. Pestle has at least three main layers of story:
Part of the fun in rehearsing Beaumont's play is creating "characters" for the actors performing Merchant because they must not only go "in and out of character" while the grocer and his wife interrupt and direct their play, but most of them are also drafted to play characters in the "improvised" adventures of the Knight. Each ASC actor has to decide how her/his Merchant actor feels and reacts to the interruptions and the improv play.
Perhaps Pestle was forgotten for so many years because the Renaissance staging conditions for which it was written were also forgotten. Performing the play with the audience sharing the same light as the actors is the first big factor that allows Pestle to breathe for a modern audience. Letting all of the songs and song snippets be contemporary (and, hopefully, familiar) is another principle at work in the original production that gives the play life. A style of theatre that includes talking to the audience, making the audience part of the world of the play, doubling and tripling of roles, and harnessing the collective imagination of the audience to imagine the "sets" and locations in the play all create an environment that blurs the lines which separate the performers from the audience in most modern theatres. The essence of Pestle lives in that blur.
In the midst of these multiple levels of meta-theatre and wacky fun, Beaumont populates his play with characters for whom we can care and cheer. It takes a lot of work to create, distinguish, and navigate these different levels and threads, but sometimes superlative silliness is a lot of work. We hope you find pleasure and mirth in our work and play.
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Friday, October 31, 2014, 7:30 pm
Actors' Renaissance Season