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UCI’s Madrigal Dinner Serves Up Hearty Slice of 16th-Century Renaissance : Celebration: Annual feast delights holiday audiences with figgy pudding and a step back into the court of King Henry VIII.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the first time in nine years, Richard Clark won’t take part in UC Irvine’s annual Madrigal Dinner.

He won’t help re-create the 16th-Century Renaissance yule feast--complete with hot wassail and figgy pudding, wandering minstrels, magicians and mimes--that has fed and entertained more than 30,000 guests over the past decade.

He won’t sing traditional airs or perform a pillow dance for 20th-Century comers to the court of King Henry VIII.

And he won’t supervise props, as he has for the past four years, ensuring that the king and queen have their golden goblets or that the ceramic wild boar’s head arrives on time and intact.

But Clark, who moved from Orange County to Northern California in January, won’t miss the merrymaking either, even though it meant paying for a plane ticket to travel back to Tudor England.

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“The holidays don’t start until opening night of the madrigal dinners,” insisted Clark, who has flown in from Cupertino to dine with the audience and make sure the prop department knows what it’s doing when the banquet’s 10-night run begins Thursday.

Nina LoMonico, who is in her seventh year and will play Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, echoed Clark’s sentiment.

“I don’t think Christmas would be the same without doing a madrigal dinner first,” she said.

Clark and LoMonico’s devotion to the Madrigal Dinner, through Dec. 13 at the UCI Fine Arts Village, is common among the production’s 140 cast members.

Presented by the choral organizations of UCI, the popular Christmas feast and well-mannered celebration features a full meal, Renaissance music and song, and the antics of King Henry VIII’s court. It is acted, sung, danced and served by students and community members, many of whom come back year after year, even some, like Clark, who have left Orange County.

Clark’s return to help his replacement through opening night characterizes “the kind of dedication we can’t do without,” said Melinda Huszti, who designs and sews the production’s costumes. She also assists her husband Joseph Huszti, UCI’s music department chair, who is directing the 12th annual Madrigal Dinner.

“They are hams,” said Joseph Huszti, explaining his cast’s persistent enthusiasm with a kindly laugh. The dinner also allows them to learn about British history. They do extensive research to develop their roles and to bring the characters to life, he said.

Drace Langford, a sociology senior, will play Henry VIII this year, his fourth time in the role. At a recent rehearsal, he explained that each year’s dinner takes place during a different period in the king’s life, and said this semester his research focused on the year 1520 and “The Field of the Cloth of Gold,” a key summit meeting between England and France.

“The king at this time is a very happy man,” said Langford, 21. Dressed in a fur-trimmed coat, the 6-foot-2 student has an auburn beard and an uncanny resemblance to the young monarch. “He’s in shape physically, he hunts, he wrote a lot of music and he had absolute reign. His word was obeyed, there was no screaming. He just said it and it was done. I take that into my character, but I don’t get cocky because he was a fun guy and everyone respected him.”

While key Madrigal Dinner cast members, such as Langford, play characters modeled after real-life figures and largely follow a script, other participants make up their own characters.

Mary Ellen Patitucci, a 22-year-old senior studying music, created the persona of Marie of Aragon this year for her fifth banquet.

“I’ve decided to be the cousin of the queen, and I’m traveling with the court as a guest,” said Patitucci, bedecked in a red and purple velveteen gown. “I’m in search of a French man (to marry) and I also enjoy sitting next to (Henry’s chief adviser) Cardinal Thomas Wolsey because he’s a man of great power and perhaps I can get some land out of him by being very friendly and charming.”

Patitucci, like all court members, will also mingle with the audience, improvising as she goes: “I’ll talk to them, spread gossip, tell them how I want to find a French man. People love it when you let them in on your story, they think they are getting something special and you are a historical figure speaking to them.”

“Playing off the audience” is also a way to sustain a high level of energy during the three-hour production during which not a single court member leaves the banquet hall, Patitucci said. “It’s hard. You’re singing and dancing and you get hungry. Everybody is eating and you’re not.”

Staying in character all the while proves challenging to madrigal performers as well.

In 1987, a rainstorm blew open a giant door to the banquet hall, startling diners and court members alike.

“We were in the middle of a song and we did react to the door--we looked around in concern for our guests--but then we just kept right on singing,” said LoMonico, 25, a first-year graduate student studying vocal performance.

Paul Erwin, who will play France’s lecherous King Francis I and a refined English lord, finds it easy to stay in character. He has the opposite problem, in fact.

“The first two nights it’s a breeze,” said Erwin, who graduated from UCI in 1988 and returned for his fourth Madrigal Dinner this year. “But then you’ll go to work or class, and you’ll find yourself bowing to people as they walk by. Or I’ve gone shopping and I find myself saying, ‘Yes, my lord, quite.’ It’s really embarrassing.”

Erwin, 24, said he expects another sort of challenge ahead: “Not to collapse of utter exhaustion by the end of the run. Especially this year, I’ll be working an eight-hour day, then going straight to theater from work.”

But, like others who must prepare for finals while they rehearse and perform the project, the effort is absolutely worthwhile, said Erwin, a claims representative for State Farm Insurance.

“It’s weird. Some nights all of a sudden you look up and say ‘Good heavens, that’s Henry the VIII,’ and it hits you that you are doing more than a show. Theater is supposed to be a willing suspension of disbelief and that really does happen. Everyone is so into what they are doing that it does b ecome Tudor England for two hours and you really are yanked back into the 16th Century when those house lights go up.”

There’s also the camaraderie that results from all the hard work and hours spent together, Madrigal Dinner players agree.

“You make friends here you’ll keep for life,” LoMonico said.

Tickets for the 12th annual UC Irvine Madrigal Dinner, $25 to $31.50, are sold out. To be placed on a list for tickets to next year’s banquet, call (714) 856-6616.


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