Into the WOODS Renaissance Festival features a forest full of fire-eaters, sword swallowers, jousting

September 26, 1992|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Contributing Writer

These suckers are lit!" exclaims the big, bearded guy as he carries a flaming torch in the direction of a petite mime who'd scream if she could. His ale gut swaying, the big guy, named Nymblewyke, has the mime, named Mimi, in a state of silent hysteria.

The audience is getting riled up, too, as this comic duo, known as Firespiel, shows off its skills at fire eating, juggling and general mischief as part of the Maryland Renaissance Festival in Crownsville.

The poor little mime's face is a study in fright. But wait. There is a sly twinkle in her eyes. Not only does she prove to be a masterful fire eater, but she's even nimbler than Nymblewyke when it comes to some of their trick playing.

The duo's finale -- a "flaming wheel of death" in which fiery torches are placed in Nymblewyke's mouth -- leaves no doubt that these performers have a fire-eating talent that can't be extinguished.

Firespiel is but one aspect of this festival which evokes Tudor England with such activities as archery and ax throwing, jousting, brass rubbing, sword swallowing, a maze, a mud show, living history plays, madrigal singing, an ironsmith, 130 artisans selling an array of crafts, pony rides and sword fighting matches in which the combatants swear by shouting "By Jove!"

Now in its 16th year, the Maryland Renaissance Festival began in Columbia and for the past eight years has been in Crownsville, near Annapolis. Having drawn 180,000 people last year, it's now considered the fourth largest among 30 similar Renaissance festivals nationwide, according to Carolyn Spedden, the festival's entertainment director -- aka the "mistress of merriment."

Ms. Spedden adds that many patrons are so hepped up on the era they come in period costume, and for reasons of their own, some have even dressed in "Viking costumes, or as space invaders, or as Batman. You name it and we've seen it," she says. "We're beyond shock now."

Most patrons come in standard suburban casual attire, though, and appreciate a festival that does not have mechanical rides and does encourage audience interaction with performers.

"Unlike other theme parks, here you create your own fun. It's not mechanical like Disney World," observes Julie Gaynor, 40, of Middle River, whose 10-year-old son, Jason, pronounced the jousting and other stuff he'd seen as "neat."

It's a family-oriented event, but the collegiate crowd also shows up in fair numbers -- like the guys moving through the forest recently, wailing, "Hey, where are the chambermaids?"

Maybe these are the same guys who sometimes try to get the 200 costumed performers to break Renaissance character by, as Ms. Spedden puts it, "asking the king what he thinks of the Redskins."

Ms. Spedden stresses that while the festival's living history plays and most of its street performers adhere to historical fact in their speech and costumes, "we're here as entertainment first, not as living history."

That attitude certainly applies to Firespiel. Mimi -- in real life Cybelle Churches-Pomeroy, 26, of the South Baltimore neighborhood of Brooklyn-- investigated Elizabethan performance history, but says that when in doubt she "just kind of winged it." And Nymblewyke -- for tax purposes James K. Frank, 33, of Laurel -- delivers bawdy jokes that are Elizabethan ,, in spirit but more contemporary in content.

Although they won't discuss particulars of their fire-eating technique lest amateur copycats attempt this potentially dangerous skill, the mime half of this 5-year-old partnership says, "It is not a trick. There is no mouth coating [applied] and you're not blowing out the flame. You are actually putting fire in your mouth."

Ms. Churches-Pomeroy, who grew up in Linthicum Heights and apprenticed nearby as "a McMime for McDonald's," was later taught how to eat fire by her partner. "It was very frightening at first because you have the fire coming at you and you want to run away from it," she recalls. "At first I could only do it with my eyes closed."

When Ms. Churches-Pomeroy isn't eating fire, she makes her living walking on stilts, face painting at birthday parties, being a living mannequin in department stores and portraying statues at toga parties. She also does secretarial "temp" work to make ends meet.

Her partner, Mr. Frank, who designs missile guidance systems for a company in Silver Spring when he isn't clowning around, taught himself juggling and fire eating as a young man in Altoona, Pa.

The duo concedes there are occupational hazards for even the most careful of fire eaters. For instance, even though they use a special lead-free gas for the torches, Mr. Frank notes that "you are still slowly poisoning your body."

The flames also leave singe marks on the lips and roof of the mouth, which Mr. Frank compares to what it's like to "burn your mouth on a hot pizza."

Ms. Churches-Pomeroy says eating fire four shows a day during the weekends of the Renaissance festival results in "my taste buds going and nothing tasting good . . . I always carry breath mints."

Because of the hazards, Mr. Frank incorporates a "kids, don't try this at home" line in the show. When kids persist in asking how fire eating is done without hurting the fire eater, Mr. Frank answers: "We carry these charms made for us by a wizard -- a pagan friend of ours -- who gave us a red bag filled with herbs and a small crystal. This protects us."


What: Maryland Renaissance Festival

When: Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 18, from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Where: Crownsville Road, Crownsville.

Tickets: $10.95 for adults; $8.80 for teen-agers ages 12 to 15 and senior citizens ages 62 and over; $3.95 for children ages 5 to 11; free for children under 5.

Call: (800) 243-7304.

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