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Escapism and quasi-fetishism blur at Renaissance Faire

Itís 11 a.m. on a hung-over Sunday and you find yourself watching a procession an hourís drive from Providence. Itís not a funeral procession, but something that Goth-obsessed teenagers could fetishize just as easily. Itís the march of nobles at King Richardís Faire: brightly clad Renaissance-era performers, some in jodhpurs, most in leather or velvet, walking hand in hand toward the main event of the day ó the Joust. Standing in between a passel of towheaded blond children in street clothes and a man decked out in full 16th-century regalia, replete with a feather in his jaunty wide-brimmed hat, the same old story plays out ó good knight versus bad night ó and lo, the good knight triumphs over evil! King Richard himself cheers from the dais, his round belly rumbling with joy.

Donít lie ó you know youíve heard of King Richardís Faire; the massive billboard looms over the Wickenden Street exit from I-195 east. It depicts a brilliant hodgepodge of jesters, wenches, knights, even a tiger with its giant mouth agape, and whether you want to admit it or not, youíre intrigued, perhaps enough to drive to Carver, Massachusetts ó a peaceful rural town about 60 miles from Providence.

The first Renaissance Faire took place in southern California in 1963. This is the 22nd season of King Richardís Faire, which was conceived by a couple who discovered a similar gathering on a trip to Minnesota. The faire phenomenon has grown exponentially since then, with more than 200 such events taking place around the world each year. For enthusiasts like Jeromy, who was dressed in a green velvet hat with matching knickers, historic accuracy is less important than the chance to dress in "garb." In the "fantasy faire," he says, "all the different eras are meshed."

In his affected Cockney accent, King Richard tells me he was "born a small child many years ago, but because of many threats to the realm, they hid me in the royal kitchen." Asked if there are many people who spend their time in crushed velvet and amulets on weekends, he remarks, "Oh youíre so innocent. Patrons, very enthusiastic patrons, have more garb in their closets than modern clothes. They live within this made-up universe." The pot-bellied king ultimately revealed, though, that heís actually Tom Epstein, a Brown engineering graduate who got back into acting through the faire.

Sauntering over to the "Mouth of Hell" performing arena to catch Whipboyís act, we found the highlight of our visit. Whipboy began by swallowing a three-foot inflated oblong balloon, suggesting that he might be giving up a very lucrative career in gay porn. True to his name, Whipboy then did some rather impressive stunts with a very loud bullwhip, including whipping a flower from his mouth. He, too, started as an actor, signing on since the faire "was the only gig in the paper," and developing his whip skills along the way. "Iím not a re-enactor," Whipboy adds. "I have to have a certain amount of compliance to the period, but Iím not a purist . . . I look at it as an entertainment venue, like Disneyland or a theme park. This is the last vaudeville-type venue around."

As the traveling carnival in HBOís new series Carnivale provides a spectacular distraction for the wretched dust bowl unemployed, King Richardís Faire is also a form of escapism, albeit in a commodified, modern form (admission is $22 for adults ó not exactly a cheap thrill). The faireís PR director, Jason Nolet, enthuses nonetheless, "Itís a great source of family entertainment. Itís a way to escape the harsh realities of todayís world."

The one unifying thread among the people I talked with ó performers, artisans, Renaissance enthusiasts, soccer moms, Goth kids, et cetera ó was their enjoyment of an irony-free good time. As my faire-going partner pointed out, King Richardís is a "hodgepodge of weird quasi-fetish things," but itís also oddly innocent. Watching a small blond boy devour a Henry VIII-style turkey leg, I thought this is what itís all about. So I downed some good ale from a tin mug and went on my merry way.

King Richardís Faire continues on weekends through October 19.

Issue Date: October 10 - 16, 2003
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