A lot of Southern Californians embrace the Renaissance Pleasure Faire--which begins its 25th anniversary run today in Agoura Hills--as a rite of spring. They say strolling through oak glades where noblemen duel and jealous wenches roll about in the dirt yanking each others' hair infuses them with a lusty joie de vivre.
Others feel as if they've immersed themselves not in the 16th-Century Elizabethan England the fair re-creates, but perhaps the Dark Ages, when the rack was still in use. They complain of traffic, heat, crowds, dust and unreconstructed hippies peddling artsy-craftsy curios at captive audience prices. They say Ye Olde Elizabethan English doth grow tedious.
Those who leave all aglow--and by all indications, most of the 250,000 folks who attended last year did--gently dismiss the skeptics, suggesting that only an FCC commissioner could be so inhibited as to miss the fun in the bawdy revelry of the Faire.
Suspend your disbelief, heed of a few tips, and you'll have a great time, they say. Herewith, our suggestions.
True believers would have revelers arrive at the Faire on foot or in a wooden-wheeled, horse-drawn cart. As you near Agoura on the northbound 101, however, you'll begin to suspect that you weren't alone in opting to take a car.
Keeping in mind that beach traffic pours along this route in the morning and evening, allow yourself a half hour to an hour and a half from downtown L.A. Take the Chesebro exit off the 101 and follow the signs.
Warning I.: Veteran Faire fans say that in the worst of times, traffic inches along the off ramp and surface streets for another hour or two before reaching the site. In past years, though, crowds have been smaller on the opening weekend. It's also a good idea to get there in time for the 9 a.m. opening festivities and leave before the Faire closes at 6 p.m.
But remember, the Renaissance was an upbeat era. So think positive. If you're going to enjoy yourself, you'll have to travel in time as well as space, and a couple hours of gridlock is just the thing to make someone want to shift gears back to another century.
Use the drive time to merge into the story line the Faire's creator, Phyllis Patterson, concocted back in 1963. Persuade yourself that the Ventura Freeway is really a road leading from London toward Oxford, and that your destination is not the old Paramount Movie Ranch, but a quaint village called Chipping-under-Oakwood. The year is 1587. Elizabeth I is queen. Shakespeare is scribbling.
"Every summer London becomes a hot and smelly place. The horrible sewer system breeds disease, and anyone who can escape does--including Elizabeth and her court," explained Kevin Brown, an actor and educator who spends weeks before the Faire helping 1,500 performers and another 1,500 vendors and crafts people get deep into the Renaissance characters they play.
As the story goes, the queen's entourage of 800 noblemen, courtiers, jesters and hangers-on has just arrived at Chipping-under-Oakwood, where the contained chaos of a country faire is under way.
Warning II.: If you get lost, don't ask directions. Not all the local residents get caught up in the spirit of the thing, and if you rely on their advice, you may wind up in Malibu wondering if the bikini is really 16th-Century attire.
Once you make it to the huge dirt parking lots, parking is free. If you're disabled or use a wheelchair, let the parking people know. Also, it's quite a hike from the parking areas to the Faire, and shuttle service doesn't start until next weekend.
Warning III.: The Faire people are fanatical about fidelity to the imaginary era, so don't plan on packing in your portable TV, ghetto blaster, ice chest or lawn chairs. But keep in mind that your car and whatever you leave in it are going to bake all day in the blistering sun.
Once you're in, the Faire folks want you to forget the 20th Century. There are pay phones in "the shire," as well as a security staff wielding walkie-talkies, but if you're going to back out, now's the time. If you're willing to sally forth, Faire aficionados say you'll have more fun if you become a part of the unfolding theater.
"People are invited (to role play) continually," said Luisa Puig, a 35-year-old free-lance computer specialist who was crowned Elizabeth I (1533-1603) for the first time in 1979 and has been playing "Good Queen Bess," ever since. "It's the ultimate street theater. There's no line between the audience and the participants."
"That's what keeps me coming back," she said, as she stood under a 400-year-old oak after being carried through the streets to shouts of "God save the queen!" during last Sunday's dress rehearsal. "When I can bring someone (into the play) with a smile, it's wonderful."
The queen's advice to first-time Faire goers: "Come to play. Drop your word processing persona of the 20th Century, slow down and smile back."
In the past, the Faire's had all sorts of get-in-cheap gimmicks, such as free admission to anyone reciting one of the Bard's sonnets. Now adults pay $12.50; seniors and students $9.50; kids under 12, $6.50, and children under 3 go free. Season passes, at $50, offer unlimited attendance through the Faire's full run: weekends and Memorial Day, from today through May 31.
Tickets are available at the Faire, through Ticketron, or at any Vons: $1.50 discounts on adult tickets are available at any Vons and in six-packs of Guinness Stout, Bass Ale or Harp Lager (no purchase necessary). There are also group rates, and anyone bringing a horse to compete in the myriad equestrian events gets in free. (For ticket information call (213) 202-8587, 9-6 weekdays, 7-7 weekends. Horse people call (818) 991-5575.)
Despite the often repeated "bawdy, lusty, sexy" nature of the Faire, kids will probably enjoy it. They'll get a kick out of all the fellow crumb snatchers in costume and enjoy exhibits such as the "Farmer's Dell" petting zoo. Child care, including games, crafts and storytelling, is available in the "Children's Dell" for $2.50 an hour, and though kids in diapers aren't admitted to the Dell, there is a diaper-changing area there, organizers say. And on opening weekend, all kids under 12 get into the Faire free.
"The whole idea is to get people to play the living history game," said Phyllis Patterson, as she watched a raucous hanging procession wend up one of the narrow, shop-lined streets at the dress rehearsal. "Our motto is tickle into learning with a laugh."
But first things first, she warned. The Faire takes place in a "shire" spread over 35 hilly acres, so comfortable shoes are essential (karate slippers, old boots, etc. are comfortable and periodesque), she said. She also advises that you wear a hat (several varieties are on sale at the Faire at prices from $5) and sunscreen to ward off a sun that can get hotter than any that ever shone over London.
A lot of Faire fans come in elaborate homemade costumes, Patterson said, but for those who decide to get into character quickly, she suggests cords cut to knickers length and a baggy cotton shirt for men, and long skirts and peasant blouses for women. Other veterans suggest that thrift stores offer a good selection of acceptable attire.
Inside the Faire, the "Harlequin's Costume Hyre" rents Elizabethan duds for $5 to $40 a day, and seven booths sell period clothing for prices ranging from $40 or so for a muslin pauper's outfit to $750 for full nobleman's regalia.
As she strolled arm in arm along a dusty lane with a peasant lad, Susan Patterson, a 19-year-old teacher's aide from Van Nuys turned part-time peasant, explained the attraction of dressing up. "I'm pretty much of a shy person except when I'm here," she said. "But here, I'm very flirtatious. It's just the atmosphere.
"Everyone's friendly--especially with these costumes we wear," she continued, glancing bashfully at the well-tanned cleavage her very tight bodice displayed.
The Faire boasts "16 separate environments," all of which are displayed on the free map each party receives at the gate.
Faire aficionados advise first-timers to find out where the water faucets and portable toilets are, then plot a course. But it doesn't really matter where you're going, they point out. The mise en scene itself is where it's at.
All day long, processions wind through the streets, past thatched roof huts and noisy pubs. Banners snap in a hot wind laden with dirt and straw and strains of music from Celtic bagpipers and madrigals wailing "John Barleycorn." Sword fights erupt from time to time. Shakespearean dramatists ham it up on several stages. Bawdy fertility rites and dances macabre unfold. The grit on the teeth, the earthy aromas and the raucous crowd all add to the authenticity, aficionados say.
With the noise and music and lascivious conduct, it's all a bit like a rock festival with a period theme, and it soon becomes clear that the Faire hearkens back not just four centuries, but--for better or worse--also a couple decades.
"This Faire always reminds me of what Woodstock might be like if it were still going on. This is the only love-in that's still happening," said Billy Scudder, a.k.a. "Jack of the Greene, the King of Spring," an actor who does those Charlie Chaplin IBM commercials when he's not defeating Rounche Rubblehobble (winter) in ritualistic battles at the Faire.
Alas, besides the '60s, the New Age is also there under the thin guise of Elizabethan mysticism in shops with names like: "Crystal Magik" and no fewer than two dozen tarot, rune and palm readers offering their services.
The game areas, however, are a bit more imaginative, with contests of skill such as "Twilziewop" (try to knock an opponent off a log with a pillow), and the "Labyrinth of the Minotaur."
The Faire's slogan is "Eat, drynke and be merrie." Keeping in mind that Elizabeth's dad was Henry the VIII, be advised that pure gluttony seems to be the only appropriate behavior.
Hard though it is to imagine Elizabeth asking, "You wanna do Chinese or Greek tonight?" the Faire folks assure us that Renaissance festivals weren't limited to Elizabethan cuisine--that England, in the Age of Exploration, was as cosmopolitan as L.A. is now (after all, Sir Francis Drake declared California "New Albion" in Elizabeth's name).
So, in addition to such staples as Cornish cockles and mussels, ($3.75 a half dozen) broth and sop, beggar's pudding, haggias and snips, Banbury cakes, Yorkshire curd tarts, and fishermans loaf ($1 a piece), "foreign traders" will also offer such delicacies as Piroshki ($3), Paella Valencia ($4.50), Gazpacho, Falafels, Shish Kebabs, Baklava, and artichokes.
For added authenticity, the Greeneman Inn Tavern serves patrons with the wood and pewter utensils of the period. And Sir John Falstaff would approve of the Faire's beverage selection, which includes a variety of British and domestic beers and ales, Guinness Stout, and Guinness's non-alcoholic beer (price range: $1.75 to $2.50). There's also a "fine wine bar" ($2 to $4.25 a glass) and juices and sparkling waters. True Faire aficionados arrive with goblets hanging from their belts, or they buy one there, which the ale stand crews will fill at a per serving price.
Warning IV.: If you can't live without Cokes and corn dogs, go to Magic Mountain.
More than 200 artisans will be peddling stuff at the Faire, at prices ranging from 2 cents for a ceramic bead to $1,000 for a Renaissance-style harp. Everything sold--with the exception of film for cameras--might have been made during the reign of the first Elizabeth.
Many of the craftsmen will be working with replicas of Renaissance-era tools; others will--for a fee--let patrons make their own paper, do their own brass rubbings etc.; and craft booths with the "Tudor Rose silver banner" flying will offer free instruction or hands- on experience in spinning, pottery, toy making, and leather working. At another booth singer John Davidson, as Friar Tuck, challenges customers to beat him at the medieval board game he hawks.
Speaking of which: Among the more unusual exhibits is a falconry booth, at which Faire goers are informed about the Renaissance fascination with these raptors and invited to have their pictures taken with the birds.
The Faire also includes a daily "Tournament of Horses," complete with full-contact, armored jousting. Horse owners interested in competing for $1,500 in prizes in less combative events such as the Quintaine, the Serpentine, or the Queen's Keyhole Race will be admitted to the Faire free and provided with appropriate attire. (Call (818) 991-5575.)
"I have a whole long theory about celebration in America," Phyllis Patterson said. "The Puritans were a sad-faced, joyless lot. They were the outcasts of Europe." And as far as festivals go, "They wrecked everything."
"When we founded this country, we turned our backs on European customs and traditions."
One of the best things we left behind was the seasonal faire, which allowed people of all classes to cut loose and celebrate their connection to the earth and the change of seasons, Patterson believes. Which may be why so many people get so completely wrapped up in the Faire.
"This is Anglo-Saxon 'Roots.' People say they get a great feeling of the past and where they come from."
"I always explain to my preschoolers that teacher spends her weekend playing dress-up with adults. They always find that hilarious," said Linda Underhill, a 32-year-old teacher from Riverside, who's been a part of the Faire for seven years.
"It's a wonderful weekend escape from the hassles of the 20th Century. There are no utilities to be paid or cars to break down when you're here in the 16th Century.
'And there's another advantage" she said, gesturing to her 320-pound figure, which was neatly tucked into "20 pounds" of layered Renaissance clothing. "In the 16th Century, this is the sexiest body you could have."