Booze and Theatre

It appears that the beer franchise at the Florida Renaissance Festival has been taken over by Warsteiner. In previous years, you could buy Harp, Guinness, all kinds of good, Celtic brews that went down full of froth and heft, like drinking a cheeseburger. No longer. It is 10:30 a.m. on a bitterly cold Saturday, and though I do not think I will be able to buy beer until noon, I have already examined my options.

And why not? I am a theater critic, and this is going to be a day full of good Ren-Faire folk theater. Ren-Faire folk theater, unlike the smarter, ostensibly deeper stuff peddled by the good men and women at places like Florida Stage and Palm Beach Dramaworks, actually encourages helpless, boneless drunkenness. By 5 o'clock this afternoon, Quiet Waters Park is going to be filled to brimming with festivalgoers done up in semi-Renaissance drag and boozily weaving their way to vendors and performers. These people know their marks, and I will soon be one of them.

Not now, though. At this moment, I am wrapping my too-few layers of clothing as tightly as possible around my body, trying to come to consensus with my three fellow revelers about what, exactly, we're supposed to be doing here.

Deana, a pretty speech therapist from Fort Myers, wants to see Theater in the Ground. That's the famous "Mud Show," the festival's biggest draw for many years running, a filthy take on the same basic idea that has brought the Reduced Shakespeare Company worldwide fame and adulation. They do a muddy version of Dante's Inferno that involves Virgil's shoving handfuls of muck into his crotch, a muddy Viking Show that involves I don't know what, and a muddy Beowulf, called Beowulf in the Mud.

Terry, her husband, doesn't much care what we see so long as it involves lots of morning drinking. He is a corporate fellow, a kind man with a real job that necessitates constant sobriety and clear-headedness. Today is his chance to rumble, and by God, he's going to take it.

Or he'll try to, anyway. The smallest member of our entourage is young Jamie, the 4-year-old progeny of Deana and Terry, and he is not in a good mood. Maybe it was the two-hour car trip from Fort Myers this morning; maybe it's colic. Who knows? Three days ago, all he could talk about was visiting the Renaissance Festival; today, all he can talk about is leaving it.

Deana and I are looking at the performance schedule when, right beside us, the Minstrels of Mayhem launch into a song about a bunch of drowned sailors. Their harmonies sound like CSNY, and the song itself sounds like America's "A Horse With No Name." I'm about to write these people off as America rip-offs when I realize, suddenly, that the Minstrels are performing this song in the middle of the 16th Century, whereas America's "Horse With No Name" hit the top of the Billboard charts in March 1972. Guess we know who the real rip-off artist is.

I'm pondering this when Terry lets out a great, big, kid-on-Christmas-morning whoop beside me.

"What's up, Ter?"

"They're serving beer!"

They are. Apparently, the after-noon rule applies only on Sunday. We amble over to the nearest Warsteiner vendor and order yards: big, plastic containers that hold 24 ounces of booze apiece. They're a bit of a con at $11 a pop, but since the refills are only $8, you wind up saving money if you can drink three. They're served to us by a woman with eyes painted on her massive bulging bosoms, leering at us over the top of a clamp-tight corset. "They keep staring at me," Terry whispers, and I don't dare respond because they're staring at me too.

Then we're off to Fushu Daiko, the Japanese martial drummers. A mixed-gender group of mostly Japanese-looking folks, they bang on huge drums in 4/4 time in unison and take turns playing swing-time solos over the noise. It's as much a visual spectacle as a musical one: The drums are played with a violent and precise choreography. The people of Fushu Daiko definitely love their instruments, but most of the time, they look as if they're trying to murder them. This is battle music, and it's disconcertingly functional: By the middle of Fushu Daiko's performance, I am absolutely ready to take up some Eastern arms and hack somebody to bits.

I am also ready for more beer. We buy some and try to find Christophe the Insulter. This is his "all ages" performance — he has an "adult's only" show later in the day — but he warns us immediately that, regardless of what we've been told, children and Christians should clear out before he gets dirty. Nobody leaves. Very soon, Christophe is being paid huge sums of money to insult members of the audience — one man paid 60 bucks to have his girlfriend insulted — and he is simultaneously revolting and hilarious, grossly inappropriate and deeply poetic. He is like the bastard child of William Shakespeare and Lenny Bruce. He refers to one young girl's pubic thatch as "primeval" and states that her cooter is so vilely repellent that it has, in fact, been used successfully as a weapon against pirates. He then recites a long poem titled Your Ass, Part II and is paid $100 to insult himself. He does so, then vacates the stage.

Jamie is whining, and Deana is trying, with not much luck, to quiet him. We catch the tail end of a magic show in which a man repeatedly skewers his wife, whom he's got tied up in a box. We buy more beer from a woman without eyes on her melons and make our way to the "Mud Show," where I discover that I am too inebriated to successfully sit on a bench. Instead, I sit on the ground and try to remember the plot of Beowulf. Did it always involve muddy brassieres? Grown men tweaking their nipples? Yes. It seems it did. Funny what sneaks by the censors.

It is too cold to muck around in this filthy water — last night, the temperature sank to the low 40s, but here these men are diving in, displaying no sign of discomfort or fatigue. I am overcome with love for them, and at the end of the show, I give them a $20 tip. I am a theater critic, but I am also a reveler. I am absolutely not equipped to drive home.

But somebody's gonna have to. Although there are more shows to see, we will miss them. Jamie, the 4-year-old in our party, is overcome with existential angst. "Nothing is fun," he says, and though we don't agree, we know he has suffered enough. We tell him we will leave. As we move to do so, we pass another Warsteiner kiosk. Terry eyes it and gives me a veiled look — too quick and subtle for Deana to notice, but I understand entirely. Yes, we will have one for the road. We are men of culture.

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Brandon K. Thorp