Before this past Sunday, I had never gone to the Bristol Renaissance Faire, though the good people there always invite me, and my wife visited when she was a mere slip of a girl and harbors happy memories of turkey legs and merry times.
But Wisconsin seemed a long way to go for a turkey leg and a guy strumming a lute, so we never went.
Until Sunday, when recognition of the dying summer snapped me out of my torpor. Bristol is exactly 30 miles from Northbrook—the first pleasant epiphany—45 minutes from driveway to parking lot.
The Renaissance Faire is magical—and I use that word reluctantly, knowing regular readers will fret that my cynical blade has rusted.
I know I should have scorned the place. But what the fair offers—a sprawling, daylong performance piece built around the romance of Elizabethan England—struck me as immensely charming, without question more pleasant than any theme park I've ever visited. Better than Disneyland. Better than Great America. Better than Dollywood.
There were ladies dancing around a maypole, knights on horseback jousting, musketeers and pirates, wenches, rogues and a lovely forest sprite lost in reverie.
We ate turkey legs and quaffed sarsaparilla (at $1 a glass, practically free on the theme park scale).
The fair draws 15,000 customers on a good day, maybe 1,000 of them in costume themselves, some barely clothed, some draped in yards of velvet, even furs, which on a hot summer's day shows a true devotion to one's predilection. They, too, are in character, and it can be tough to tell who is working and who is merely lost in private phantasm.
"This is like the soundstage of an action/adventure/comedy taking place in Elizabethan England," said artistic director Ron Scot Fry. "An almost cinematic world where you can walk right through it and be whoever you want to be and everybody in that world will treat you that way."
I have to mention the artisans with shops there. This isn't your standard carnival crap—goods have to be approved to get in, which means there are no plastic swords or Mary Queen of Scots Barbies. Browsing is half the fun—custom-made boots and hand-stitched capes. I never felt the slightest urge to own a sword before, but hefting a finely balanced, well-crafted blade, I thought it a shame I neither had a use for it nor the $545 price.
But if you like strange—to me, strange is good—if you are intrigued by hundreds of people acting out some kind of mass summertime fever dream, then this is the place for you. An engaging blend of low and high—to turn sociological—"The Idiots of Drumming" and a bookstore brimming with Shakespeare, people eating mud over here and playing the harpsichord over there.
The most astounding fact, I saved for last: When the park closed at 7 p.m., I was sorry to go.
'Hail to purple, hail to white . . . '
Eating mud takes only a moment, and it is a tribute to the showman's art that the three performers who present the Renaissance Faire's Mud Show manage to build 35 minutes of entertainment around it, dividing the audience into competing Trojans and Spartans, challenging each other to various mud-centric stunts, delivering an endless patter of ribald jokes, heading out into the audience, faces caked with ooze, to kiss surprisingly compliant men and women.
The ringleader, his voice hoarse from overuse, cut a compact, bearded figure that seemed vaguely familiar. I knew a guy, once, who did this kind of thing. But that was years ago. Could he still. . . . I leaned forward and watched closely.
After the show, I went up to him.
"You're Rush Pearson, aren't you?"
In a tale that I've often told to illustrate the capriciousness of fate, the summer I graduated, the producer of Saturday Night Live swept into town and plucked away four Practical Theater members. But not Rush—he was off at another Renaissance Faire, eating mud. The four went on to big careers—particularly Louis-Dreyfus, who played Elaine on "Seinfeld"—while Rush remained a maestro of mud.
The good news is he has no regrets, views his missed chance philosophically, and seems to have a very, very good time putting on his show at the Renaissance Faire, which runs weekends through Labor Day.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 15, 2007