Shtick and history: Renaissance Festival offers mud, sweat and cleavage

BY ROBERT TRUSSELL
rtrussell@kcstar.com

As I approached the main gate to the Kansas City Renaissance Festival, I heard war drums pounding away just inside the compound, and my pulse quickened.

What lay in store? Acrobats? A stunt show? Dueling swordsmen?

To my right was an impossible-to-miss figure standing on the periphery of a grassy field where an archery competition apparently was to be held. Certainly there were archers in the Renaissance era — generally considered to span the 14th to 17th centuries as a bridge between the Middle Ages and modern Europe — but this fellow would have been an odd sight on the streets of Shakespeare’s London or Michelangelo’s Rome. I shall call him Thor, because he was costumed as a bearded Norse warrior holding a massive hammer in one paw.

Thus, even before I entered the grounds, was I introduced to the fungible definition of “renaissance” at the annual Renfest, which began decades ago as a fundraiser by the Kansas City Art Institute but is now a commercial enterprise operated by a Minnesota-based company.

P1190011

The King and Queen lead the daily parade through the festival grounds. Photo by Robert Trussell

Inside the gates, I saw a number of young women wearing plastic elves’ ears (Were there more elves in the Renaissance than other eras?), a man wearing what appeared to be a Plains Indian feathered headdress and, of course, a few court jesters.

So, too, were there “bawdy” wenches with expansive decolletage, costumed strollers greeting visitors with “Good day, sir,” and boys and men dressed as medieval knights. There were moments when the mashup of incongruities became so vivid that I felt like I had stumbled into the multispecies cantina in “Star Wars.” Sadly, I saw no White Walkers (the frozen zombies from the pseudo-medieval “Game of Thrones.”)

People strolled around munching fried chicken served in paper cartons and enormous turkey legs. You could buy a $6 domestic beer if the sun made you thirsty. As you moved through the fairgrounds, there were times when the air was filled with the smell of hot grease and others where the dominant aroma brought to mind a cow lot. And, thanks to the recent rains, you had to sidestep patches of mud.

P1190012

Mounted knights join the parade and will soon meet in the lists. Photo by Robert Trussell

But there wasn’t much to do with the real Renaissance. Nowhere did I find a single reference to William Shakespeare, Johannes Gutenberg or Galileo — not that a visit to the festival is meant to be a scholarly pursuit.

No, the general era conveyed by the stage shows, attractions and gift shops spread across 16 acres in Wyandotte County invites a description no less vague than “olden.” As in Ye Olde (fill in the blank) Shoppe.

The war drums, it turned out, weren’t warlike at all. Just loud. They were part of an early-afternoon performance by Soul Fire, a “gypsy” troupe of young men and women who danced, tumbled (rolling in the dirt), twirled flaming batons and indulged in PG-rated banter with the audience.

Within minutes it was time for the parade — the daily procession in which most if not all of the resident performers fell in and toured the festival grounds with drums and trumpets. Knights on horseback, kings and queens, dancers and clowns shuffled, marched and pranced through a Sunday-afternoon throng of spectators. Bringing up the rear was the masked Executioner, an axe resting across one shoulder, who repeatedly called out: “Parade’s over! Bye-bye! You can all go home now!”

I followed the parade through the wooded festival site to the jousting arena, which is one of the festival’s big selling points.

The bleachers were packed by the time I got there and when the fellow dressed something like Henry VIII told the audience through his wireless microphone that they were to see merely a demonstration, the spectators were audibly disappointed.

“There will be no bloodshed today,” the King told them and a collective “aww …” rippled across the crowd.

I expected some bad theater and the alleged jousting didn’t disappoint. There was more talking than fighting as the King and Queen traded quips with the armored Sir Arthur, Sir Malcolm and Sir Duncan, who sat on costumed horses. The shaky accents, I could tell, were meant to sound British. First the mounted knights competed by spearing rings tossed in the air by a female squire. Finally, it came down to the real matchup — a joust between Arthur and Duncan.

On the third pass, Arthur unseated Duncan, who slowly fell to the dirt without injuring himself. Then they fought with swords. Let it be said the level of violence was less than shocking.

The festival has plenty of entertainment for family and kids. There’s a stand near the lists that sells foam swords. There’s a petting zoo. You can pay to ride horses, ponies, llamas, camels — even an elephant. There’s musical entertainment at stages throughout the park. But there’s also stuff for people in the market for something less than wholesome.

That’s why I ducked into the Dungeon Museum and paid $2 for a quick walk-through. The first window showed me the skull crusher, which worked something like a vise. The minimal written information in each display informed me that most of these interesting inventions were employed to extract confessions. No kidding. I’d confess to anything if the skull crusher were wrapped around my cranium.

It’s a short tour and the ineptly crafted mannequins representing torture victims won’t score points for realism. Yet the museum, whether by design or not, stood as a reminder that the Renaissance, for all its stunning achievements in art, philosophy and mathematics, had a grotesque side that reflected the worst in human nature.

With that happy thought, I called it a day and headed for the exit.

This article was originally published in the Kansas City Star on Sept. 23, 2015. Visit www.kansascity.com