Festival's latter-day court play

September 24, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

Winifred, the king's cook, appeared stunned by the visitor's question.

"Do ye mean to say, m'lord, ye do not know what year 'tis? 'Tis the year of our lord 1537, and today all of Revel Grove is welcoming King Henry and his queen, Jane."

The man, taking a tour of the Maryland Renaissance Festival grounds in Crownsville, had wondered aloud what century was depicted by the sprawling representation of a Tudor English village.

Of course, this was really just last weekend, in the year 1993 -- but you would not have learned that from the bustling Winifred, played by Judy Smith of Arnold. The actress never broke character as she rattled on about the king's appetite, the day's rain, her missing kitchen helper and the location of the village "privies."

Forsooth, the nation's second largest renaissance fair creates a pretty good illusion. With a little imagination -- and paying no attention to the jet airliners overhead and the roar of auto traffic from I-97 -- visitors can take a fun trip back through time.

"We're not a living history museum, like Williamsburg, but we do try to follow what was going on in those people's lives," says Carolyn Spedden, "Mistress of Merriment" for the festival.

Although casual visitors may not know it, a historical drama based on actual events is performed by a troupe of actors each day. And for the past five years the story has progressed with each season.

"It's really one of the greatest soap operas in history," says writer Mike Field, "Master of the Scriptorium."

The central figure is King Henry VIII, notorious for his uncommon size, his table manners and his multiple wives. Bill Huttel, 6-foot-7, portrays the 6-foot-2 king with regal authority.

At last year's festival, the village was abuzz as Henry appeared in outrageously open attendance with his mistress, Jane Seymour. And, at the drama's close, he sentenced Queen Anne Boleyn (wife No. 2) to death under a French executioner's sword for treason.

This year's daily story line is set two years later, as the king and a very pregnant Queen Jane (played by Theresa Flynn) stroll the village. Visitors ultimately learn of the birth of the king's first (and only) son, Edward.

Rough plotting is already in the works for next year's introduction of wife No. 4, Anne of Cleves, says Mr. Field.

"We like to think that everything we write has some semblance to historical accuracy," says the playwright, who during the week works for the Johns Hopkins University Gazette. He notes that last year's script of the climactic condemnation of Queen Anne used the language of transcripts that survive from the period.

A second plot line, less historically rooted, has the king's royal secretary, Baron Thomas Cromwell (Thomas Plott), planning to raze the entire village to make room for a new palace. Village leaders, led by Lord Mayor Bribeworthy (David Marsh), seek ways to save their town.

Writing a play that moves through the day and throughout the village poses a challenge, agree Ms. Spedden and Mr. Field, who in real life are husband and wife.

"We have to make sure that each court event is self-contained, because we know not everyone has seen the one before, or will see the one after," says Ms. Spedden, who has been entertainment director for five years, and previously was an actor in the festival's ensemble. She also directs one of the the resident theater troupes, Shakespeare's Skum.

The key events of the drama take place wherever the king happens to be, and the program visitors receive at the entrance gate provides the schedule. Most important moments happen at the jousting arena, where handsome knights on horseback tilt four times a day.

The continuing drama provides merely the centerpiece, however, a broad attempt to evoke a historical feeling.

Many visitors come in period costume themselves. And the first booth inside the gates offers costumes for rent, from about $15 and up to $50 for the day, depending on whether you want to be a peasant or a noble.

Like any fair, the Renaissance Festival is a marketplace, with more than 130 craft shops selling generally high quality, mostly handmade goods, including pottery, jewelry, leather goods, games, musical instruments, hand-forged blades and a variety of wooden objects, from practical bowls to big bedsteads.

Ms. Spedden said a festival committee approves all items to be sold, with an eye toward quality and a sensitivity to keeping objects, if not actually authentic to the Renaissance, at least not too jarringly 20th century.

You will not find anything requiring batteries, for example, and the shops -- many owned and designed by proprietors who return year after year -- do not have electric lights.

Merchants are required to wear period costumes, says Ms. Spedden, and encouraged to speak in character, addressing customers as, "My lord and lady," for example.

The festival's patrons, too, help dictate what is for sale.

For example, brass sculptor Pamela Chevalier of Cortez, Fla., in her second year in Crownsville, is selling mostly lovely, fanciful brass sculptures of dragons this year -- including dragon "eggs," really stone geodes with half-formed baby dragons inside.

Why dragons?

"Because people come to a renaissance festival and want them. People here just like and expect dragons," she said, noting she is better known in Florida for her marine life figures.

Food vendors also offer items you wouldn't find at your local fast food franchise, such as steak-on-a-stake, cream stout and meade, and -- the perfect accessory for Henry VIII -- whole turkey legs grilled over an open flame.

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