The Maryland Renaissance Festival is to the Renaissance as the Munsters are to Frankenstein, but it's a lot more fun.
"Prepare Thyself for Merriment" says the banner over the entrance to the new permanent setting for this nine-year-old extravaganza, and just beyond the threshold three girls in Elizabethan dress sit on bales of straw and sing "Blow away the morning dew."
Straw is everywhere: scattered underfoot and, posing as thatch, bunched on the roofs of sheds and booths. The booths are everywhere, too, forming a giant corral in a wooded glade. Families wander about bedazzled by the costumed figures who cheekily address them in what is presumably Renaissance gabble.
"Good morrow to you!" shouts a varlet in red hose, black pantaloons, armored vest (mysterious) and pointy, brimmed varlet hat.
"Emmm," replies a chubby dad in Bermuda shorts. His small daughter sucks her thumb, with the index finger over the nose.
"Forsooth, a glorious day!" bellows the varlet, leaning heartily back like Santa Claus. The dad grins with apprehension and sidles away.
Booths? You want booths? How about Elizabethan costume rentals, wooden toys, stained glass, hats, flutes and recorders, T-shirts, dried flower garlands, pottery, herbs, jewelry, wearable art, quilts, pillows, leatherware, paintings, prints and sketches, macrame', candles, beadwork, spices and massage oils . . .
At the Dragon Treasures shop, next to a counter of dragon rings and assorted jewelry, lies an awesome assortment of clubs, maces, swords, halberds, daggers and axes. The proprietor explains that he leaves the finish rough to give the weapons authenticity. He buys them in Germany, Italy, Korea and all over the world.
"The price on that," he tells a young customer handling a huge two-handled sword, "is $50. That's an Excalibur."
Excalibur and suits of armor and jousting and all that really go back to the dark medieval days the Renaissance was supposed to take us away from, but never mind. Over here another jolly, bellowing churl (why did everyone shout so in the 16th century?) summons a timid crowd to a production of "Gorboduc," or as his sign insists, Gorbeduck.
He gets people clapping and calling to his commands and is acting a little bit like Gorboduc himself, who as you know was the model for King Lear and a tiresome old tyrant indeed.
Just down the sward a piece a juggler keeps four balls in the air while reciting his own poetry ("For we are life and life is art/ and art is love forever . . .") and standing on one foot.
"Now observe," he says, "six balls! two hands! no brain!" and juggles six balls to fierce applause.
Out on the jousting field three horsemen take turns swiping at a melon, and these performers too keep up a steady line of chatter, to the audience if there is one, to each other if there isn't. All in Renaissance.
"You'd best make it good," mutters one rider to the next. "We're losin' 'em." Aloud he cries, "What be the horse's name?" The name, he is told, is Barton. He doesn't know what to say to that.
Two guys named Snot and Sweatpants are dueling, exchanging gags with every thrust and parry ("No man is an island . . . unless he wets his bed"), and finally kill each other with jabs under the arm. They are not too dead, however, to pass the hat among the crowd, which chuckles and responds generously, though they have already paid $7.50 to get in.
Things are happening all over the place: A falconry demonstration featuring a very young falcon named Magnum temporarily breaks up when Magnum flies off to a nearby oak and refuses to come down.
"He's just a baby," says the trainer, whistling on his falcon whistle. Magnum whistles back but stays in his tree.
Close by, a soft-eyed woman plays a hammer dulcimer, another quite separate plays "Greensleeves" on a harp, and a third twirls fire-tipped batons. Curious figures stroll past, conversing doggedly in Renaissance: a jester, a bishop, a knight in full armor with visor down, a wench with blacked-out teeth, a veritable queen complete with starched ruff.
There is a petting zoo for children with goats, donkeys and a llama, and a separate zoo with a baby elephant and several tigers of various sizes that you can get your picture taken with.
There is fencing for anyone willing to put on a mask ("Make Thy Day," says the sign), carefully supervised, and a knife-throw, tomato-toss, dart-toss, archery range and a new game of skill called Gag the Dragon. There is also a massage booth, a tarot booth, a palm-reading booth, a glass-blowing demonstration and a juggling school.
During the weekends through Sept. 29, including Labor Day, the festival will be open from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., with free parking about five miles east of Annapolis. The 70-acre site can be reached from Rte. 50, north on Rte. 3, east on Rte. 450 to Crownsville Road. Maryland's festival is one of 12 such pageants from here to California, and it features area musicians, actors and artists from storytellers to mimes, from jugglers to acrobats.
Through this phantasmagoria roams a magnificently dressed group, obviously Somebodies in their velvets and gold chains and satin slippers and hose. They turn out to be the Royal Court, with Elizabeth herself, her favorite Robert (Robert Dudley; the other one, Robert Devereux, having lost his head over her), the Lord Bishop of Durham, other lords and ladies, musicians and pages and beefeaters.
About noon they collect at a long table and set about feasting from jugs of lemonade and loaves of bread. Their conversation, loud and hearty, is delivered with bows, curtsies and much handkerchief play, and runs to the bawdy. The onlookers stand around munching on french fries and trying to make out what is being so elaborately said.
The court says grace, heads bowed.
"What they doing?" inquires a man in sky blue pants.
"Ssssh," whispers a woman in yellow pedal pushers.
. . . and blacksmiths, mask makers, jewelers, costumers, wood sculptors, print makers, silversmiths, potters, fudge makers, airbrush artists, leather workers, madrigal singers, bagpipers, kaleidoscope makers, puzzle builders, pillow makers, feather trimmers, animal trainers, tumblers and a lady who talks exclusively through a kazoo.