'Commercial, cheesy and crude
I'd come again next year'
SHAKOPEE, Minn. --
; Chivalry is not dead, me fine folks. For six more weekends, it thrives rain or shine at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival.
The question is, if you've been there before, is it worth ye time and pounds to go again?
To find out, we -- an experienced Renaissance-goer and a first-timer -- journeyed in a Honda-drawn carriage two hours northwest of fair Rochester, arriving around 10 a.m. in the grassy lot just south of Shakopee on U.S. Highway 169.
Back in time
Clad like latter day Robin Hoods and fairy-tale princes, men took tickets, alongside fair ladies in tight, cleavage-straining bodices and full skirts.
"Have a good day, me lady!" the ticket-taker says. Then, upon seeing my guest, a self-described crowd hater, added: "Aw, smile, he isn't that ugly."
We chuckle and pass through the gateway into a bustling "city."
Spanning 22 acres, the festival brings modern man and woman back centuries to the Renaissance. (The transitional time between medieval and modern European history that began in the 14th century in Italy and lasted until the 17th century. In this era, the arts and intellect were reborn.)
We head north with an order of deep-fried minibrats ($3) and a "homemade" salted nut roll ($3) to the New Market Racetrack. Here, armored men on horses will dare each other with spears, while spectators cheer and jeer. But first, some Renaissance hosts lead spectators into temptation, cajoling each side of the track to hurl louder and louder insults at those across the track. The humor soon turns bawdy.
Finally, the armored men on horses draw near. Lady Catherine, sitting primly but assuredly on a black-spotted white horse, rushes along one side of the course, encouraging spectators to support Sir Matthew. Another cheerleader works the other side for the competitor.
The jousters take their positions, then rush each other spears drawn but not threatening.
"Hit him in the eyeball! Get him in the face!" a passerby, dressed in drab peasant duds, calls to the helmeted, and therefore hard-of-hearing, riders. They continue this ritual with increasing pretend violence. Matthew clunks the other rider with his spear. They return to starting positions and carry on. Eventually, Matthew smacks his unsuspecting competitor from behind, knocking him to the ground. The crowd cheers. Matthew stands on his horse, acknowledges the crowd, then, fist up, pounces elbow-first on his motionless competitor. More cheers!
"That's so cheap," we agree with a laugh, silently remembering the $15 advance ticket price paid to watch medieval WWE.
Bored with the make-believe joust, and finished with the $3 hickory beef jerky, we carry on, past the $3 camel and elephant rides, past the petting zoo, where a plucky chicken runs by, and pause at the games section, where an obese "wench" sits in a dunking tank, as commoners hurl balls to the target.
A ball hits, but the wench remains seated. "It's rigged," a spectator says. The host overhears, "No, it's not," he almost pleads. "He's already gotten wet." A quick glance from a distance at the balding wench reveals nothing.
Gotta get a goblet
We walk along the mulch-covered pathways past the palm and tarot card readers. Past the ladies who braid patrons hair in courtly styles. Past the trinket stands offering fake wooden swords and armor. Past the 275 of craft shops selling the Renaissance-inspired wares of 12 artisans.
After a few hours, the pottery, jewelry and apparel do their best to convince patrons they need a goblet for wine, a stein for beer and a hooded shawl for the olde cobblestone streets of Minnesota.
Food vendors in character call out, "Three pounds for the king!" They demand you buy "a turkey leg for ye lady," and "a beer for thyself!" Through the day, we resist the fresh fruit, sausages, caramel apples, chocolate-covered strawberries, gyros, pizza and creme puffs, but not the turkey leg ($4) or roasted corn on the cob ($1.50) or "Queen"-size pop ($2).
We watch the performer "Tuey" balance tenuously on a ladder while juggling rings. He waddles back and forth to keep his balance, and tells soft jokes between gravity-defying maneuvers. Cool.
He's the second juggling-balancing act we've seen. The first, a group of three men, juggled fire while making crude banter about starting the bald guy's head on fire about what above his head would burn as the third man stood atop his shoulders, about what wouldn't burn. Finally, they juggled the blazing batons three ways. Cool.
The craft shops begin to look alike, so do the peasants and noblemen. Patrons with leashed dogs cuddle their pups. Ginger, a blonde Afghan, goes by, as does a miniature Daschund cradled in his caretaker's arm.
A damsel fingers a harp, an old gent sings a lullaby, a young man strums a guitar.
Somewhere along the way, the festival King and Queen and their court stand nearby and greet us with a nod. Caught in the moment, we feel momentarily special.
We pause to check out the Tortuga Twins' performance. (They're actually three men …; get it?) With fake Italian accents, they promise adults the forthcoming lewd humor will go over children's heads. Then they tell the children to ask their parents if they don't understand something. We're curious but not amused. The leader makes a bad rap joke. The sideman makes a bad pelvis-grinding joke. The other sideman makes a …; and so on. They proceed to spin the tale of "Little Red Riding Hood" and pick a large woman from the audience to star. Get it?
In support of the Masque Youth Theatre of Rochester, we head to Bear Stage to catch their troupe's puppet show, "Jack and the Beanstalk."
While waiting, we catch the last 15 minutes of "Vilification Tennis," during which two teams hurl wickedly funny insults at each other, most of which are unprintable ("Your mom is so old, she went to an antique shop and they kept her!" escalates into much, much worse after a few "serves".) We laugh in spite of our better judgment, and inch closer into the standing-room only crowd. They finish on a particularly vulgar, hilarious note, and spectators clears before the Masque troupe comes on with their puppets. A handful of children and parents watch.
Catching the spirit
After so many hours, our weary legs carry us through one more lap through the village.
We pass a turtle wearing a kilt and carrying a basket on its back. A sign pinned to his backside reads, "Look under my kilt."
"He won't do anything, will he?"
"No," his keeper promises with a smile.
OK. A yellow, smiley face appears. The turtle's fundraising for the Herpetological Society. One dollar later, we begrudgingly go to the exit.
Before the question is asked, my guest says: "I'd come again next year, and dress up in something cool, like an executioner."