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At the Elizabethan Theatre of the Folger Shakespeare Library to June 6

A surprising number of acquaintances have asked me in the last few days whether they should go to Shenandoah Shakespeare Express’ The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Most of them opine, while doing so, that the play itself is a hoot.

I’ve no idea how they know this. Francis Beaumont was a lad of 23 in 1607 when he wrote Pestle, a goofy comedy in which a theatrically challenged grocer and his wife cajole a reluctant theater troupe into turning the conventional romance they’re performing into an action-packed swashbuckler. It was a hit at the time, but Beaumont promptly formed such a close partnership with the better-known John Fletcher (who also collaborated with Shakespeare on Two Noble Kinsmen) that the names Beaumont and Fletcher have since been uttered almost exclusively in the same breath. Pestle qualifies today as the sort of curiosity that would have a tough time finding its way into an academic footnote. I’m unaware of any production of the play hereabouts in the last few decades, or of any university drama syllabus that includes it.

Still, never mind….Folks seem aware of it, and the 11-year-old SSE—which specializes in performing the Bard’s plays in a manner approximating the way they were produced at the Globe some 400 years ago—has unearthed it as the company’s first production authored by an Elizabethan other than that playwright. You go to it hoping it’ll be a wonderful discovery, and for a while it seems to be just that.

The play begins as a performance of a middle-class romance called The London Merchant, but no sooner has the title character started speaking with one of his daughter’s two suitors than the actors are interrupted by shouts from the audience. A grocer (Michael Glenn) who’s wearing a riot of plaids stands up in the fifth row to suggest a more active plot line (“Let him kill a lion with a pestle”), and soon he and his wife (Wyckham Avery), who is attired in blinding orange polka dots, have ascended the stage with every intention of goosing what they see as an overly staid romance to rambunctious life.

Their preference is for action-adventure, and when the acting troupe’s members protest that the stagy buckling of swash requires a hero, and that they all have parts already, the grocer offers up his dimwitted clerk, Rafe (Clinton Brandhagen), as a leading man. Hi-jinks ensue. The troupe gamely tries to perform its romance, while Rafe commandeers bit players for his own purposes, drafting one to play his dwarf, another his squire, and so forth.

Ralph Alan Cohen’s staging for SSE boasts the best program note patrons will have seen in a while: “The emblem of the Grocer’s Guild was a mortar and pestle. Anything else suggested by the pestle is now (and was then) in the eye of the beholder”; but it isn’t otherwise as inspired as it might be. The actors he’s cast as interlopers are fine, but Beaumont gives them less to do than would a modern playwright, possibly because he could count on Elizabethan audiences seeing the play-within-a-play as a parody of then-current dramas at the Globe.

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For Folger audiences, riffs on romantic-historical dramas are bound to pack less of a punch, which means the punch lines now seem almost the exclusive province of the kibitzers. And in a low-comedy way, they’re still amusing. Glenn does some nice slow burns as a grocer whose lack of taste is exceeded only by his bull-headedness. Avery’s goofy matron roots for the wrong character in just about every instance and won’t be said no to by actors who are trying to muddle through as their author intended. And Brandhagen, as the cluelessly enthusiastic Rafe, is reasonably funny as he leaps headlong into scenes in ways that muck up the ongoing drama. None of this is subtle—Brandhagen’s sticking his gum behind his ear when he has a soliloquy to speak or returning from battle with an arrow through his head is typical of the sort of humor the director goes for—but it passes the time.

Cohen’s attempts to milk the acting troupe’s resistance to the intruders is less successful, partly because the troupe’s members aren’t very often reacting in sync. Gwendolyn Druyor’s Prologue, for instance, gets her laughs by doing her best to stick to the plot she started with, while Walter Elder gets his by scooting around and being the best darn dwarf he can, once Rafe taps him for that insurgent role. Elsewhere the humor is largely of the lance-held-at-crotch variety.

Still attractive, however, is SSE’s devotion to performing Elizabethan plays in the circumstances for which they were written: on a bare stage, in modified contemporary dress, by actors who play multiple roles and who share the light of day with the audience. The company makes a fetish of avoiding conventional theatrical frippery, which means its settings amount to a few boxes and banners, and its costumes adhere to a sneakers ‘n’ slacks aesthetic. It’s a clean, direct performance style, and when it works, it can be a real joy. When it doesn’t, it’s at least spare. In Pestle, it’s mostly spare.

The company’s Macbeth, which is being performed in repertory with Pestle, is a different sort of muddle. It begins strikingly, with witches outlining a double-bubbling cauldron with red masking tape while singing an eerily dissonant “That Old Black Magic.” But almost as soon as the play’s noblemen take the stage, looking—in their black tunics and leather sleeves—like a blow-dried biker gang, you can feel the magic ebbing away.

Walter Elder’s Macbeth pouts prettily, his fluffy blond mane bouncing every time he turns his head, but he never registers as much more than a frat-boy pretender as the murderous thane. Nor is the king he stabs (Tom Summers) terribly regal, or the courtiers and schemers more than hangers-on. Jay Postell Pringle makes a declamatory, not very interesting Banquo, though once he’s been dispatched by Macbeth’s hired killers, he creates a startling Beloved effect as Banquo’s ghost, grinning broadly past dreadlocks and looking, when wrapped in stretchy black netting, almost alarmingly like a decomposing Thandie Newton. That same netting, wrapped somewhat more stylishly, turns him into a RuPaulish Hecate in another scene. Still, he’s never as persuasive vocally as he is visually.

Others are better. Michael Glenn has—and is—fun as the hilariously drunken porter who delays discovery of the king’s body long enough for Macbeth to wash the blood from his hands. Chaon Cross’ seductive Lady Macbeth, who gets a real Michelle Pfeiffer thing going as she descends into madness, is flat-out terrific. And the ever-reliable Kila Burton (who has been a great asset to area stages of late, and should be lured back to them ASAP) includes an impish little boy, a heartless murderer, and a convincingly creepy witch among her five roles.

But David W. Johnson’s staging is the sort that illuminates the text only in flashes, and as the evening wears on, those flashes are increasingly separated by bombast. Apart from some nice visuals (red ribbons flung high for spurts of blood,) and the occasional sharply delivered line, this engagement doesn’t do much to highlight the virtues that have made the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express so popular with area theatergoers. CP