- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2005

It has been a tough couple of years for this particular head of state. First of all, his efforts in the production department have not quite come up to snuff. Changes in personnel did not go quite the way he planned. Like many parents, he’s having difficulties with his teenage daughter. And it turns out that a trusted friend may be neither.

Of course, that’s all part of the territory for a Renaissance king.

The year is 1537, the head of state is Henry VIII, and he and his royal courtiers are about to spring into action for the 29th annual Maryland Renaissance Festival, now under way in the serendipitously named Crownsville, Md.

If you ever have felt like lacing yourself up in a corset, chowing down on a turkey leg, or rollicking around town to the tune of a wandering minstrel, then the Maryland Renaissance festival is for you. Where else can you take in a version of a Shakespearean play, tack on some fairy wings, or watch the plight of a princess resolve itself in the course of a day?

Get ready for the clash of steel on steel and the roar of the crowd as one helmeted rider takes on another in the joust. Make way for beautiful women, chivalrous men, and of course, the king and his court.

You can even come in costume yourself.

“It’s a great social scene,” says Lori Beard, a stay-at-home mom from Annapolis. Mrs. Beard is part of Team Wench, a collection of Renaissance Fair enthusiasts who meet to do things outside of the fair, like raising money for charitable causes. Her friends and family wouldn’t dream of going to a festival without “garb.” “You really feel like you’re in a different place when you’re there,” she says.

Mrs. Beard is a “rennie,” one of that cadre of hard-core enthusiasts who attend numerous fairs every year. But that other worldly, out-of-time feeling is an essential aspect of the festival experience for just about anyone.

Costume is key, for both performers and ordinary patrons who want to take on the whole Renaissance experience.

“Dressing up puts you in touch with the past in a way that nothing else does,” says Kim Guarnaccia, founder and editor of Renaissance magazine, a compendium of historical articles and other information related to the Renaissance and Renaissance fairs. “Most people have these boring day-to-day jobs. But on the weekends they can throw caution to the winds and put on a corset or strap on a sword.”

A mild-mannered accountant can suddenly find himself in hand-to-hand combat, while a weekday computer geek may reinvent herself as a tavern wench, ready to handle either the toughest pirate or the most ardent lover.

“It’s such a playful atmosphere,” says Debra Hathaway of Easton, who sells marionettes and costume accessories among other sundries at her shop Dragon Wings. “You walk through the front gate and feel like you are entering a place that is just magical,” she says.

Even the vendors come in costume at the Maryland festival and speak the language of the fair: a distinctive take on Renaissance English, complete with more than a few “miladies” and the occasional “in sooth.”

“It’s part of the show,” says Terry Boquist, from Taneytown, Md., who has been selling his carved wooden pieces and furniture at Renaissance fairs around the country for 20 years. “We all do it. If you don’t play the game, it won’t work.”

Part history lesson, part circus, part theme park, Renaissance festivals manage to offer something for just about everyone. They began in the early 1960s in California and have spread to just about every state. The Maryland festival is one of the largest, attracting hundreds of thousands of patrons to its fairy tale Tudor village over nine weekends.

The popularity of Renaissance fairs and festivals has a lot to do with the uncertainties of our own times, Mrs. Guarnaccia says.

“There’s a perception that during the Renaissance there were those who were heroes and those who were villains,” she says. “There was an incredible aspect of chivalry that is missing in our culture today. That’s a very compelling thing, especially since in our world it can be difficult to determine what’s right and wrong.”

Music is also an integral part of the Renaissance fair experience. At the Maryland festival, local favorite Maggie Sansone has been leading the “morning merrymaking” for the past 20 years. She’s also got a stage show and a show with puppets that are activated by foot pedals that’s popular with children.

“We provide the atmosphere of gaiety,” says Miss Sansone, whose repertoire for the festival encompasses English country dances by John Playford, Celtic jigs and reels, and music penned by none other than Henry VIII himself.

Patrons often start dancing right away, says Miss Sansone, who says she loves the energy associated with the event.

“I love putting on a costume and being in character,” she says. “I always wanted to act.”

Renaissance fairs are family friendly, with a number of activities just for youngsters. At the Maryland festival, Conundrum the magician is a popular draw, with his sleight-of-hand techniques and large-scale stick puzzles. If you hear the bells, that’s probably Conundrum, complete with elaborate costume sewn by his wife, strolling along with his bag of tricks.

“I’m a close-up magician,” says Conundrum, also known as Todd A. Brown in the 21st century. (During these more mundane times, he’s a bartender at the Turf Valley Country Club in Ellicott City.) “I’m right up there with the people.”

And talk about hands-on history: Strolling along beside you as you make your way down the lane may be some real figures from history, who may finally let on why they chose to behead that second wife or dissolve that monastery a few doors down.

“The show doesn’t contain itself to the stage; it takes on the entire village,” says festival actor Tom Plott, who’s been appearing at the fair in one guise or another since 1989. This year, he’s also known as the bumbling country cousin of the sheriff, Seymour J. Seymour, who will be working out his own issues each day at 3:30 during the Human Chess Game.

Just don’t expect the Spanish Inquisition.

“We don’t pretend we’re a living history museum,” says artistic director Carolyn Spedden, who has worked on making the Maryland festival more theatrical and more historical over the years.

Each year, the festival focuses on a year in the life of Henry VIII, the Tudor monarch of six wives fame who ruled England from 1509-1547. Last year, wife No. 2 was crowned and beheaded all in the course of a day, so this year Jane Seymour, wife No. 3, can be found on Henry’s arm.

There’s a backstory here as well, in the person of the Lady Mary, daughter of Henry by wife No. 1, Catherine of Aragon. With her comes all the intrigue and gossip of a court whose characters are actively trying to secure a position of rank and favor (while holding on to their heads.)

“You have to know what the person was really like,” says Diane Wilshere of Manassas, better known during festival days as Gertrude Courtenay, marchioness of Exeter. The marchioness (or marquise, a noblewoman ranking above a countess and below a duchess) has been known to organize impromptu cabbage jousts, pick on other members of the court, and even pen love letters for the illiterate masses just to ensure that each day of the festival is a bit different from every other.

Performers have to be alert and ready to respond to questions about their characters at a moment’s notice.

“You have to have an answer for everything,” says Steven Kirkpatrick of Hyattsville, who plays schemer Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), who masterminded both the break with the Roman Catholic Church and the downfall of wife No. 2. (He was an ancestor of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, who helped to topple the British monarchy in 1649.)

“I did some research and found out all the things he’s done; it turns out he was not a very nice man. Of course, that makes it more fun to play him,” Mr. Kirkpatrick says.

Despite the entertainment aspects, history is something festival organizers take very seriously.

“We do have an audience who know their history,” fair veteran Mary Ann Jung tells the assembled performers during a recent run-through of their character’s historical personas. Ms. Jung, who is married to Mr. Plott, has a degree in British history from the University of Maryland and makes good use of it both at the festival and during the rest of the year when she portrays various historical figures as part of her “History Alive” program.

After several years playing Henry’s No. 2, Ms. Jung this year will be playing a pirate queen, one whom she’s imbued with a historical framework.

“She’ll be the daughter of explorer John Cabot,” Ms. Jung says. “But she probably won’t be going around saying ‘aaarrgh.’ I love blasting historical expectations.”

Performers at the Maryland festival have become so popular, says Mrs. Spedden, that they’ve developed their own followings.

“Audiences have really developed relationships with individual performers,” she says. “They’re addicted in the way people are addicted to soap opera actors or sitcom stars.”

With 10 stages throughout the festival grounds, there’s always something going on at the Renaissance festival in addition to the historical storyline. This year features a version of “Macbeth” in honor of the 1,000th anniversary of the Scottish king’s birth.

“We’ve got such a strong acting cast,” Ms. Jung says. “We don’t want to do the same shows over and over.”

Like other Renaissance festivals, the Maryland version supports a host of subsidiary industries that have sprung up to support the needs of its ever-expanding performer, patron and participant base.

After all, where are you going to go when you need that special sword, partlet or piece of chain mail? Renaissance costumes may be hard to find, but they’re even harder to sew, so a number of Renaissance outfitters are ready to outfit you. That’s not to mention the Renaissance or fantasy-themed furniture, art and other crafts that can be had for a song, or two, along the Tudor village’s row of shops. And this is one Tudor town that sports an ATM.

“It’s like walking into a fantasy town,” says Mr. Boquist, who recently settled down at the Maryland festival after years of traveling the Renaissance fair circuit. “You don’t hear motors, you’re surrounded by street characters and you’re instantly put in a good mood.”

Special weekends add to festivities

Festival fun:

WHEN: The Maryland Renaissance Festival continues Sept. 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 17, 18, 24, 25 and Oct. 1, 2, 8, 9, 15, 16, 22, 23

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

WHERE: Crownsville Road in Anne Arundel County, about a 10-minute drive from Annapolis.

INFORMATION: 800/296-7304, or check out the festival’s Web site (www.rennfest.com).

TICKETS: Single tickets range from $8 for children (ages 7-15) to $17 for adults, with discounts available for seniors and groups. Children 6 or younger enter for free. Two-day and “fairever” passes are also available.

MISCELLANEOUS: No pets, no rainchecks and no weapons (real or costume) allowed.

Highlights:

• The story of Lady Mary is played out in two stage shows — 11 a.m. at the Gatehouse Stage and 3 p.m. at the Globe Theatre.

• Princess Arianna and her Fairy Godmother Bertie can be found in the original production “The Lost Princess,” at 2 p.m. at the Gatehouse Stage.

• Seymour J. Seymour at the Human Chess Game at 3:30 p.m. on the Joust Field.

• Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” on the Globe Theatre at noon.

• The comedy “The Lying Valet” is presented at 4 p.m. on the Gatehouse Stage.

Dates to watch:

• Sept. 3, 4 and 5: Jousting Tournament

Please note: Jousting is featured every performance day of the festival.

• Sept. 5: Seniors Day

All seniors 62 and older are admitted for free on Labor Day.

• Sept. 10, 11: Deaf Awareness Weekend

Selected shows are interpreted for the hearing-impaired.

• Sept. 17, 18: Scottish Celebration

Celtic music, dance and caber-toss demonstrations.

• Sept. 24, 25: Pirate Invasion Weekend

Music by the Pyrates Royale and The Corsairs. Visit with the Pirate Queen. Pirate costume contest for adults and children. Special appearance of the knights from Medieval Times.

• Oct. 1, 2: Oktoberfest

• Oct. 8, 9: Romance Weekend

Saturday, Oct. 8: Singles party

Singles ages 21 and older can enjoy a Singles Meet & Mingle. Time: TBA.

Sunday, Oct. 9: Renewal of Vows Ceremony.

Couples may take part in a ceremony to renew their commitment vows, with a celebration to follow at the Dragon Inn. Time: TBA

• Oct. 15, 16: Shakespeare Weekend

• Oct. 22, 23: Festival Finale

Source: The Maryland Renaissance Festival Web site (www.rennfest.com)

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