Mud in Your Eye, Beowulf
As you enter the Florida Renaissance Festival and hear the first bad English accent yell "G'day, my lord" coming from the first wench with blacked-out teeth, your stomach goes temporarily queasy.
Whenever a mass of reenactors goes critical whether colonial American villagers, Civil War privates, or tights-wearing, 15th-century minstrels flags go up. They're always so perky. Chuck Palahniuk (who wrote Fight Club, among others) had it right when he chronicled living history villages in his novel Choke: "They always leave the best parts out. Like typhus. And opium. And scarlet letters. Shunning. Witch-burning."
But the queasiness passes. Reenactors are really just folks in the Peter Pan Diner booth behind you eating feta cheese omelets at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night, and it doesn't really matter why these people do what they do. Desire for momentary transport to a so-called simpler time? Who cares? It's fun. And there's something illuminating to be found at the heart of the Renaissance Festival an important comment about the nature of theater.
To get there, though, you must first mill through human scenery under the hot sun beating down on Quiet Waters Park, where you'll meet lots of over-the-top characters. Colorful maidens and harlequins. Knights and damsels and pirates and gypsies. Goth kids and AC/DC fans. Men in tartan kilts. Dreadlocked Renaissance carnies. If you have a soft spot for carnies, then you're all set.
There's a full range of Renaissance as erotic prop. A sexy Tori Amos look-alike in a tight black bustier. Homoerotic, blond, Abercrombie boy twins with matching black leggings tucked into motorcycle boots. Hottie women in velvet dresses (who have brazenly smuggled a white-wine-drinking chicken into the fair) looking for husbands, even as they spy your open notebook and seductively insinuate: "Journalists make love better than most people."
Um, and what about the anachronistic cowboy slumped against a tree in black jeans, shirt, bolo tie, and long duster coat? Do you dare ask? Of course you do. "That's an interesting contrast to the Renaissance garb," you might say to him, to which he'll bite, "These are my everyday clothes." Oops.
To get to the "important comment about the nature of theater," you also must navigate cheesy carnival games the Spear Throw or Bump-a-Monk and the tepid jousting show ("With pleasure, I accept the challenge!") presided over by the festival's flaccid king and queen, as well as endless kiosks offering braids, face painting, funnel cakes, henna tattoos, kettle corn, incense, chessboards, glassblowing, and blacksmiths. All of this somehow reminds you of Palahniuk's Choke: "The blacksmith keeps beating his metal, two fast and then three slow beats, again and again, that you know is the bass line to an old Radiohead song he likes. Of course, he's ripped out of his mind on ecstasy."
But finally, yes, theater. It's all around, on a dozen assorted stages and glens, ranging from play swordfighting knife-throwing to plays for kids, like Dragon Scales and Faerie Tales. But what stands out are two the bawdy Washing Well Wenches and Theatre in the Ground, otherwise known as the Mudde Show.
The vaudevillian romp of the Washing Well Wenches plucks men out of the audience to tweak their nipples and otherwise humiliate them, making it clear that there's no statute of limitation on erectile-dysfunction jokes. The trio behind the crowd-pleasing Mudde Show acts out Beowulf, but with audience-splashing mud. "Help keep live theater dirty," the trio yells as it sweeps up tips after the show.
Nothing about these shows is original (although, come to think of it, who reads Beowulf anymore?). Each ribald line and joke has surely been time-tested for years, if not centuries, to entertain you and take you straight into the gutter. These shows could very well have played 500 years ago.
OK, the "important comment about the nature of theater"? If nothing else, what seems the real transfer of the Renaissance to the modern Renaissance festival is the transfer of the spirit of outdoor theater. Despite what's often heralded as the demise of theater on the cultural landscape, people do love it. More than any showy display of velvet and swords, the continuing existence of theater is the real Renaissance festival. Now, if you could just lure some of these people into a Saturday-afternoon matinee of David Mamet or Tom Stoppard...
In the end, as with any display of rank exhibitionism, you have to know when to leave. Is it the cacophony or the sun that sends you away or one too many "huzzahs"? Regardless, as you leave, you'll hear, "If you be coming back, my lord, you must have a hand stamp."
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