Renaissance Faire

: There’s more to the Ren Faire than turkey legs and wenches. Really. –>

Guerrilla theater, Elizabethan-style, at Ren faire

Believe it or not, there is more to a good Renaissance fair than beer, low-cut outfits and gamespeople who ask if you’ve played with your balls lately. For all its advertising emphasis on turkey legs, jousters and bosom-exposing wenches, the fair, at its heart, is all about theater.

Consider the North Bay’s own Heart of the Forest Renaissance Faire, created by the Patterson family, as in the family of Phyllis Patterson, who jump-started the whole Ren fair movement back in the ’60s with the original Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Los Angeles and, locally, at Blackpoint in Novato. The original fairs began as opportunities for Patterson’s theater company to do its thing, and that tradition is still woven into the fabric of the place.

The entire fair, of course, is a stage, with hundreds of actors in period garb cavorting about doing Elizabethan improv in the streets, but connoisseurs of guerilla theater know that there are pleasures to be found–and, yes, the occasional pain to be endured–at the fair’s five main performance stages, each of which provides a nonstop stream of theater, musical revues and other acts all day long.

Among the highlights of this year’s event is a show called Shakespeare’s Bloody Bits. Presented by the theatrical combat troupe the Albion School of Defense, and created by actor and fight choreographer Michael Cawelti–a kind of comic-violence visionary–Bloody Bits is one part Reduced Shakespeare Company, one part Monty Python and one part every-cool-swordfight-you’ve-ever-seen. Bloody Bits is, unsurprisingly, all the parts from Shakespeare’s plays that involve violence and/or death, tossed together into a stew of 16th-century silliness, anachronistic asides and vigorously bad puns.

Not quite as funny but just as full of action is Robin Hood, Prince of Leaves–also performed by the Albion School of Defense–a comic variation of the old legend that takes a lot of liberties but is still 100 percent better, and certainly funnier, than that embarrassing Kevin Costner movie. At the very least, these guys can do the English accent.

Speaking of accents, Kevin Costner at least tried to speak the speech. In a show titled One Rude Fool, the fool in question is a juggler and comedian who, while talented enough at tossing fake bowling balls and making off-color jokes blue enough to get the show an R-rating, makes little attempt to fit in with the Renaissance theme of the place. Admittedly, I rather enjoyed One Rude Fool, but beyond a show-opening greeting to the attending “lords and ladies,” this could have been performed in a used car lot, where this fool’s thoroughly modern maxims like “Ya ready for this?” and “You guys are sick!” would not have stuck out so badly.

The Stark Ravens Historical Players present a pleasant fractured fairy tale titled Dumlin and the Magic Goose, which has several funny moments but could have been much funnier and a good deal tighter. I’m sorry to have missed the Stark Ravens’ presentation of something called Doctor Arlecchino, or The Imaginary Autopsee, which was sadly not being staged the weekend I attended, nor was the same group’s 30-minute comic condensation of Richard III. Based on that mysterious name alone (The Imaginary Autopsee–so Grand Guignol, so very, very Kit Marlowe), I’m seriously tempted to go back again just to see what I missed.

“I hate to repeat gossip–so listen closely,” says one of the members of Blame It on Eve, a harmonious all-female singing trio who mix storytelling (more like strings of one-liners) and enthusiastic onstage beer drinking with authentic Elizabethan songs about, well, drinking, as well as, of course, sex. Not since the late ’70s have bawdy singers so blatantly consumed alcohol onstage, but it’s a charming show and easy to hum along with.

My all-round favorite performance, though, took place not on a stage but in a rectangular box. The Piccolo Puppet Players’ traditional–and decidedly non-PC–performance of Punch and Judy is possibly the most authentic, anachronism-free show at the fair. Energetic and jaw-dropping–all those puppets! all that violence!–this is one puppet show that really packs a punch.

The Heart of the Forest Renaissance Faire runs Saturday-Sunday through Aug. 15 at Stafford Lake Park, Novato. 11am-7pm. $6-$20. 415.897.4555.

From the August 4-10, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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