T: Faire Thee Well S: Period costumes, jousting and much S: ayle prevail at Renaissance Pleasure S: extravaganza -- now in Vacaville A: Steven Winn, Chronicle Theater Critic D: Tuesday, August 31, 1999 C: (c) 1999 SF Chronicle
``MasterCard or Mistress Visa,'' the vendors at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire say. Then, with a verbal flourish of ``Good day, m'lord'' and ``Fare thee well,'' they ring up the sale.
This annual historical recreation -- part costume party, part crafts, food and entertainment emporium -- wears its commercial heart on its puffy doublet. The first thing visitors encounter, after parking in a hay field at the fair's new Vacaville site, is a booth peddling raffle tickets for a classic Mustang car.
There's an ATM just inside the front gate, and it's impossible to walk along one of this ersatz Elizabethan village's dusty streets without meeting a stream of hawkers pushing everything from pewter mugs and ``succulent sausages'' to costumes for hire and a chance to ``pelt the privateer'' with tomatoes.
Renaissance fairs are big business. The Colorado-based Renaissance EntertainmentCorp., which operates the Northern California edition and four others around the country, represents only a tiny fraction of the industry. Artistic Director Rikki Kipple estimates that there are 120 such fairs in operation around the coun try and pegs a recently broadcast figure of $32 million for the Renaissance retro business as ``way low.''
About 200,000 patrons are expected at this year's 33rd northern California fair, which left its longtime Novato location last season after a protracted search for new quarters following the 1994 sale of the Black Point property. The Vacaville site, a eucalyptus and black walnut grove behind the shuttered Nut Tree restaurant off Interstate 80, is temporary. Promoters hope to settle permanently in Antioch next year.
A busy freeway exit may seem an unpromising spot for time-traveling back four centuries. But spend a good portion of a day here, as my family and I did at Saturday's sun- baked opening of an eight-weekend run, and the fair's multilayered appeal begins to take hold.
Renaissance fairs work in many ways for their many constituents, all of whom come together in a strangely harmonious communal fantasy. Stroll down Potters Row to the Cat & Fiddle Common and beyond, and one enters a dense piece of environmental theater that's simultaneously earnest, rigorously detailed and an elaborate in-joke.
Period-costumed citizens of this 16th century shire -- fair participants and play- along members of the public alike -- speak to one another in a Renaissance polyglot and conduct a kind of improvisatory, interactive charade.
``I cannot see me a thing,'' one dancer said to another when a cowl slipped over his face. Mysterious dramas crop up out of nowhere. ``I'm not Spanish, I'm Scottish,'' a courtier in lush black velvet told a stranger. ``I won't hold it against you since you did fashion our walls quite well.''
``A thirst has been thrust upon you, m'lass,'' a vendor told my perplexed but game 8-year-old daughter when she requested a soft drink.
Jesters taunt passers-by from a fenced-in court. Brash washerwomen slap their sheets on a rock-lined basin. Two matrons take madrigal requests in a lull before a Punch- and-Judy show. Armored jousters gallop onto a dusty tournament ground, pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth I in her box and hurl themselves and their silver-plated horses into a clattering, choreographed battle.
Sunburned cleavage, often festooned with miniature swords or flowers as a mark of feminity, is the prevailing female look. Swords and tankards dangle proudly from many male waists.
Promoters like to sell the fair as ``living history'' and tout the research on costumes, customs, music and other Renaissance matters pursued by the various guilds. These groups operate like New Orleans Mardi Gras krewes, preparing certain aspects and exhibits for the fair year after year. Some of the fair's 1,200 participants are paid. Others volunteer or contract with the producers as vendors.
Much of the public tends to take a looser view of the past, writing a kind of free-form part for themselves and fitting it to the occasion.
Jamie Donohoe, a 31-year-old Berkeley schoolteacher who was lolling outside an ayle house in period garb, said he liked the ``crisp, clear'' roles of the ``old chivalric code. A man's a man here, and a lady's going to be a lady. We don't have that today.''
His brother John, a 28-year-old Web page designer, detailed some of the curses he likes to use at the fair; ``God's teeth, God's bristly b--. This is the only place where you can come act in a certain silly way and it's part of the norm.''
Tess Tendertush (``It's spelled like it sounds'') was not about to give up her role for a conversation with a reporter from another century. ``I do have me a job,'' she said. ``I do play rounders.'' She had lived in this shire, she said, all her life.
Jamie Dernon, a 22-year-old teacher from Concord who had just watched Ye Queen's Royal Pageant at one of the fair's seven entertainment venues, confessed a fondness for fairy tales. ``I always played a princess for Halloween,'' she said. Dernon apologized for her 15th century peasant's costume, which she had finished sewing at 2 a.m. the night before; ``It's a little dated.''
Mike Walsh, 43, who works in construction in Orange County, had to be persuaded by a companion to reveal the fantasy that went along with his costume. ``I'm a radical pirate captain,'' he said with a sheepish grin.
His social worker friend Dawn Bankston, 52, loves the Renaissance for the royalty. ``I know this probably isn't true,'' she said, ``but it seems like that made it a freer time. There was something to look up to.''
For all its immersion in the past, the Renaissance Faire gets people thinking about the present. Standing near the queen's box during Saturday's Royal Joust, I watched a couple of private planes take off just outside the grounds. It was those machines, over a field of knights and horses executing ``passes in the French manner,'' that looked out of place.
A few moments later, when the dastard knight and his virtuous opponent slid off their horses and began battering each other on foot, the professional World Wrestling Federation cameras could have been rolling. The centuries merge.
The Renaissance, as Rikki Kipple likes to say, gave birth to the middle class. ``It was the first time people had money and could live a little better than they had as peasants.''
We indulged in a little shopping spree ourselves on our way back to the parking lot, just like any middle-class family finishing up the day at a theme park or well- stocked mall. My daughter wanted a dried flower garland ($16). We picked up a wheat hanging for the kitchen wall ($10) and passed on a mace ($150) and the pewter light-switch plates ($22 and $27).
I wondered, on the way home in the air- conditioned car, if that fellow offering three virgins for sale on Gamester's Row had any takers.
RENAISSANCE PLEASURE FAIRE; The fair runs on weekends and Labor Day through October 17 at the Nut Tree, Interstate 80, Vacaville. Tickets; adults $17.50, children 5-11 $7.50, children younger than 5 free. Call (800) 52-FAIRE. 523-2473.