Jousting, jesting, revelry for all

Pageantry: The Maryland Renaissance Festival celebrates 16th-century figures and pastimes.

August 25, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Fred Nelson was sweating.

He had 15 minutes to catch his breath, change into royal garb and prepare to make the biggest entrance of his life: as King Henry VIII at the annual Maryland Renaissance Festival, which opened yesterday in Crownsville.

"The only thing that has me nervous is my shoulder," he said. "It's twitching, and I have a sword fight later. "

The festival, which started 25 years ago in Columbia and moved to Crownsville as it grew, is one of many such fairs throughout the country that pay homage to Shakespeare's era with costumes, shows, craft vendors and general revelry.

Nelson is one of 74 actors and 29 street performers - all professionals - appearing at the nine-week gig in the woods.

For eight hours every weekend through Oct. 20, they'll don costumes inspired by 16th-century attire and wander around in character, mingling with visitors and putting on elaborate stage productions.

Nelson, 38, had just finished performing in an Italian comedy and was about to take the stage again as King Henry, wearing layers of velvet and brocade in the afternoon heat.

It's an honor that almost wasn't.

The role of King Henry VIII is typically a constant at the festival. But William Huttel, who played the king for the past 13 years, died in November, and many weren't ready for someone else to fill his shoes.

"The audience and actors were divided over whether we should have a king at all this year," said Tim Shaw, the festival's associate artistic director. "But we have to move on, and [Nelson is] doing a great job. "

This year's festival is dedicated to Huttel's memory.

"A lot of people ... truly loved the man," said Nelson. "It's very uncomfortable stepping into a role like that. You don't want people to think you're a usurper. ... But the cast has thankfully accepted me and shown me a lot of love."

To get the job, Nelson, who has acted for 20 years in various venues, had to audition and show that he knows something about 16th-century events.

"It's more than just being handed a script," said Mary Ann Jung, who plays Queen Anne Boleyn. "You really have to know your history, more so here than at other fairs. The Washington area has a pretty educated audience."

The story line, costumes and court characters are based on historical fact, and require actors with knowledge and improvisational skill. This year, the festival takes place in 1533, and King Henry has recently divorced the much-loved Catherine of Aragon so he can marry Anne Boleyn.

Her coronation is one of the highlights of the daily show, and includes an accurate (and expensive) replica set of the crown jewels - replicas that Queen Elizabeth II used when practicing for her coronation in 1953.

The fair is more than historical theater. It features feasts, jousting competitions, ax-throwing, elephant rides, comedy shows, fire-eaters, two pubs and more than 140 vendors selling everything from fairy wings to devil horns and swords.

Interaction with the actors is probably the favorite diversion of fairgoers. Actors stroll the lanes, spilling gossip, speaking in English accents and generally causing good-natured trouble.

Last year, the festival, which is spread out over 25 shaded acres, drew more than 300,000 people.

"I just hope I don't disappoint anyone," said Nelson, whose wife, Kristina, also performs at the festival. "I honestly can't replace [Huttel], but I'm going to try to do his memory honor."

The Maryland Renaissance Festival, on Crownsville Road in Crownsville, runs from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekends and on Labor Day. Admission is $7 for children and $16 for adults. Information: www.rennfest.com or 800-296-7304.

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