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Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Beaumont and Fletcher's The Knight of the Burning Pestle meets Monty Python

Also see Richard's review of Los Big Names

Every year the Marin Shakespeare's Festival has to have one very silly play, and this year is no exception. The company has resurrected the little produced 400-year-old farce The Knight of the Burning Pestle, which belongs to a genre very popular during Shakespeare's time. (A pestle was used by grocers to grind substances in a mortar; however in the Bard's day, the pronunciation of "pestle" was identical to "pizzle.") But the Bard did not write this "citizen comedy"; it was written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, contemporaries of Shakespeare. Both wrote many comedies that were very popular with the London audience. Some have said that Francis Beaumont wrote this play unaided, and in his dedication he tells of a failure of the farce because the audience apparently did not appreciate "the privy mark of irony about it."

The Knight has been called a "city comedy" or "citizen comedy" since it does not deal with kings or heroes but with the middle class Elizabethan citizens of London who enjoyed good, raunchy comedies. The plots and subplots of these plays are often theoretically interrelated in some way and come to together at various times, and characters step out of their assigned roles.

The plot of The Knight of the Burning Pestle is loose to say the least. We start by watching a commedia dell'arte production of the love story of Jasper (Drew Hirshfield), apprentice to Merrythought (Jarion Monroe), who does not have a dime in his pocket but sure likes to drink a lot. (He also can't pronounce the word "merry" and has the audience yell it out when ever it comes up in a speech.) Jasper is in love with Merrythought's daughter Luce (Mary Knoll), but the father won't have this since she is intended for rich Humphrey (Andrew Fonda Jackson). The actors are dressed in outlandish costumes as clowns, and suddenly, from the audience come citizen grocers George (Julian Lopez-Morillas) and his wife Neil (Linda Paplow), who are not happy with the performance. George yells out "Fie upon 'em little infidels! What matters here now! Well, I'll be hanged for a halfpenny, if there be not some abomination knavery in this play. We'll let 'em look to it. Ralph must come and if there be any tricks a brewing he will find out." The manager of the little acting company, Venturewell (George Maguire), looks like a chief clown of the Ringling Brothers Circus and speaks like a cross between George S. Kaufman, Milton Berle and a few Yiddish producers I used to know, wanting to know what's going on. And, by the way, this paragon of a sleazy producer plays the father Humphrey in the play.

Beaumont and Fletcher's farce suddenly becomes like Monty Python, with music from the '50s, '60s and '70s. You get every kind of song, from country western to Presley to Broadway shows and good old rock and roll. Who cares what the plot becomes once Ralph (Darren Bridgett) our hero arrives. Ralph has never acted on the stage and it shows. The story is now very loosely based on the story of Don Quixote, who finds a lady fare in the audience. He fights bears and even the "demon barber of Fleet Street." There are knights, a dwarf, dancers, more clowns and a heck of a lot singing by Jarion Monroe.

The Knight's cast is a complete comic delight. Each tries to out camp each other with exaggerated movements, pratfalls, groaners and great zingers relating to today. Darren Bridgett is a delight to watch. His ambidexterity is amazing. His confusion in the play is positively brilliant. He has the best and most funny death scene that I have seen in ages. George Maguire matches Bridgett'ss comic ability by his great asides to the audience and his speeches that sound a little like the late George Burns. Each actor is worth the price of admission. A very close third is Jarion Monroe, dressed in an outlandish balloon clown outfit singing with great vocal chops. He brings down the house every time he appears on the stage.

Drew Hirshfield does a bang-up portrayal of Jasper and also plays the demon barber. He has the look and manner of a young Joel Grey playing the M.C. in Cabaret. He wears tights like those of a trapeze flyer throughout the whole performance. Mary Knoll, who has a deep man's voice when singing, makes a wonderful Luce. Andrew Fonda Jackson with his strange Mayfair accent is very good. The green grocers and money backers of the "new play" played by Julian Lopez-Morillas and Linda Paplow are first rate as they sit and make comments on the play they want to present. Ron Serverdia, Robert Leach and Don Pitsch contribute to the hilarious and energy driven farce.

Robert Currier brilliantly directs this super outrageous parody of the Don Quixote legend mixed a little with many of the Bard's romantic plays. He has assembled a top flight cast of comedy actors to make this one side-splitting merrymaking evening.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle runs in repertoire with Two Gentlemen from Verona through August 14th at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre located on Grand Ave, Dominican University of California, San Rafael, California. For tickets call 415-499-4488 or visit

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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