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‘Burning Pestle’ revels in merry meta nonsense

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Who knew that Jacobean theatergoers were sophisticated enough to know that you could make a play out of breaking the fourth wall? In a situation that seems the opposite of the folks who saw the Lumiere brothers’ film in 1896 and ran out of the theater because they thought the train was really coming at them, playwright Sir Francis Beaumont in “The Knight of the Burning Pestle,” now playing in a production by the Queens Players at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City, has his audience members literally throw themselves into the action with unchecked enthusiasm.

The two audience members are Nell (the wonderfully bawdy Helyn Messenger, with her cascades of Renaissance hair, who also did the costumes) and her husband (Thom Brown III, of the great booming voice), who’ve come to see a silly bit of work called “The London Merchant.”

The play-within-a-play involves star-crossed lovers, a Quixotic knight, his squire and his dwarf, a barber who, if I recall, kidnaps his clients and stows them away in a cave, and the Merrythoughts, one of the weirder families who’ve ever graced the stage, and that’s saying something.

The work of the actors is ever-complicated by the fact that Nell and her husband not only heckle them, but Nell, especially, will get out of her seat, come on stage, and fix things to her liking. She and hubby have no problem rewarding pliant actors with some gold either. They do this despite repeated warnings that if they mess the play up to the point where it can’t continue they’re going to have to compensate the company. Most of the actors resent them, with the exception of the bloke who’s playing the title character. He seems more than happy to follow their direction, even if it means his knight leaves Britain altogether and winds up in improbable countries to woo improbable princesses.

Director/p­roducer/set designer Richard Mazda and the large cast (Joshua Warr, Brian Walters, Alexander Stine, Kate Siepert, Kyrian Friedenberg, Ross Pivec, Philip J. Rossi, Avery Manuel, Jonathan Emerson, Shannon Pritchard, Ariel Rosen-Brown, Jacklyn Collier, Alex Cape and Randy Warshaw) have brilliant fun with all this.

The stage is mostly bare, with bits of plastic foliage standing in for a forest and a puppet theater representing the Merrythoug­hts’ house. The usual headgear are the baggy hats of pizza makers, or inverted flower pots.

Joshua Warr is the knight, Rafe. His shield is a garbage can lid, his pestle is ... unfortunate. He is unfortunate. At one point he’s so wrapped up in Maypole ribbons that he has to be carried off the stage. At the end Nell demands that he die, for no particular reason. He obliges her.

Another standout is Master Merrythought (Stine), who enters wearing a scarlet fez, on a tiny tricycle, in huge glasses that cover half his face. He bellows/sings his lines, or gives his lines to his handpuppets. The reviewer could only wonder, “Who is this chap?”

Siepert is also superb as the especially vexed Mistress Merrythought; her character not only has to deal with an insane, wayward husband, but the actress (or, back in the day, actor) who plays her has to deal with Nell and her husband, who feel sorry for her.

Manuel brings a touch of pathos as Lucy the ingenue, bound by the whims of her father (Pivec). Rossi is good as the puzzling Jasper, her lover and the Merrythought’s older son, who stupidly tests Lucy’s fealty by threatening to kill her. The other chap who wants her, Humphrey (Emerson), is astonishing as he flawlessly rattles off line after line of Shakespearean rhyme, all the while looking very whipped. The pre-pubescent Friedenberg is so sweet as Mistress Merrythought’s favorite son that he makes your teeth hurt. He’s great on the violin, too, especially when Walters dances to his version of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

“The Knight of the Burning Pestle” makes no sense, which is why it’s so very good.

If You Go

The Knight of the Burning Pestle

When: Feb. 24-25, 27 and March 2-5, 8 p.m.

Where: The Secret Theatre, 44-02 23rd St, Long Island City

Cost: $18

Contact: 718-392-0722 for reservations

Web site: www.secrettheatre.com

Updated 11:03 am, October 12, 2011
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