Married to the Stage: ‘Human Chess Match’ by Natalie McCabe

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My husband lives in an imaginary village. A shire, to be exact. He works in another century, too, and has for the past three years. Currently, he is living in the year 1590 in the 35-acre Shire of Mount Hope, the site of the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, under the artistic direction of Mark Sullivan. Now in its 32nd season, the faire has a different scenario each year and a different theme each weekend. This time, Queen Elizabeth I (the ever-beautiful Jess Eppler) has come to the shire to escape plague rampaging through London. Two acting companies, her own Queen’s Men, led by William Shakespeare (a witty Corey Whelihan), and the Lord Admiral’s Men, headed by Christopher Marlowe (a strong Brock Vickers) have joined her there. Though the Queen’s Men are already under Elizabeth’s patronage, the two companies are competing for her favor.

The Queen and her Boys. Richard Tarlton (Johnny, left), Queen Elizabeth I (Jess Eppler, center), and Sir Walter Raleigh (Lee Jordan, right). Photo courtesy of Jess Eppler.

Compounding things is the Queen’s advisor, Lord Cecil (a stern Nate Betancourt).  A Puritan, Cecil has enjoyed the theatre in his lifetime about as often as he has smiled – in other words, never. If Cecil has his way, all theatres will be closed in London. Permanently. With the plague on his side, Cecil weasels his way through the day.

Admission earns the visitor several story-line shows as well as multiple independent acts throughout the day. Shortly after the gates open, the day’s scenario is set at Queen’s Court. Not long after, stunts galore grace a nearby stage in the Boarshead Brawl (also known privately to me as “hold-your-breath-and-cross-your-fingers-til-after-Johnny’s-high-falls”).

Following this is a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V that runs just under an hour. Johnny plays a very human yet in-command Henry and is joined by an equally entertaining ensemble, including William Shakespeare himself in multiple roles, such as the entire Chorus. (This show has the added benefit of watching more sword fights while sitting in the shade).

Then comes what is, in my opinion, the best part of the day: the ‘Human Chess Match.’ Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s men and associates compete against one another in a living, fighting chess match on a humongous chess board. (While this is certainly a biased point of view, I absolutely love when my husband, as Richard Tarlton, and his fight partner, Brad Frost, have to be pulled apart by the other actors in their respective companies after their swordfight descends into hand-to-hand combat, seen in this video.

Edward “Ned” Alleyn, played by the aforementioned Frost, bites Tarlton, who responds by grabbing his eyes fishhook-style. As they are being pulled apart, Tarlton shouts, “I’ll eat your heart!” The first time I heard this line, I thought, “That’s my boy!” After all, I love the fact that my man looks more like he could’ve stepped out of the film Braveheart than a corporate office. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the latter career, but it is far from my life, “married to the stage” as it is).

Tarlton (Johnny, left) and Alleyn (Brad Frost, right) fight. Photo courtesy of Photography by Michael Ulrich.

Not long after this comes the ‘Final Joust,’ run by the Knights of Noble Cause jousting company. (More than once, I have found myself saying the following to friends. “Sorry, I forgot that knights and swords are not normal parts of most people’s lives.”  – OR –  “No, I only sleep with a sword next to my bed when my husband isn’t there!”

The day ends with ‘Finale in Song,’ choreographed by the talented Alyssa Foley.  (In fact, my Johnny and the Queen’s jester, Whippoorwill, mime their way through my favorite part of finale during the song “Little Beggarman,” seen here.

Whippoorwill is played by a very gifted Emily Kaye Lynn. Seriously, girl’s got talent, and I genuinely enjoy watching her dance with and get tossed about by my husband). Naturally, “Greensleeves,” the tune written by King Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn, both parents of Queen Elizabeth I, is included in the finale. The Gypsy’s version and the ballet that accompanies it are lovely, as can be viewed here.

The actors are divided into two casts: Bacchanalians and Blackfryars. The Bacchanalians are the professional cast, many of whom have worked professionally and/or are recent graduates from various theatre programs. The Blackfryars are a largely volunteer cast consisting of local adults as well as high schoolers. All are costumed by the marvelous Katie Wallace Keener and her equally hard-working staff of stitchers.

Independent acts and other shows, unrelated to the storyline, grace multiple stages throughout the day. Children’s shows, some performed by the aforementioned Whippoorwill, some written by the bubbly Becky Grow, who plays Georgina “George” Tillingast, the Queen’s chef, flit through the Children’s Discovery Garden. “Asterixed” (adult-themed) shows are tucked towards the back of the faire at the Ball and Chain stage. I am partial to most of these shows, including the “in-house” music groups Rogues and Sirens and the show “Trial and Drench,” which illustrates a bit of Renaissance-era punishment.

Spread out over the rest of the shire are artisan merchants and food stands.  Throughout the area, a visitor can watch demonstrations in glass-blowing, woodworking, and more- and purchase unique handmade gifts. My “vendors of choice” are Scott and Kathy Griffith, of Dragon Eye Creations, and their business partner Craig Baratz, of Sir Launch-a-lot. The Griffiths turn their unique pens by hand, and Kathy does exquisite artwork. Baratz vends items – handheld catapults, small crossbows, etc. – perfectly suited for shooting marshmallows. (In fact, just after Chess, follow the Queen for a marshmallow battle at their shop!)

There is food to please any palate- though visitors can’t bring their own inside the gates. Typical “fair” food, including slushies, funnel cakes, burgers, hot dogs, fries, deep-fried candy bars, and other desserts, abounds.  Soups, salads, crepes, teas, and coffees round out the more sophisticated end of the food chain. However, it is the foods on sticks that shine: pickles on a stick, steak on a, well, stake, bacon on a stick, etc. Like most Renaissance faires, one of the most popular foods is the extra-large turkey legs.  (As independent act Rowan and the Rose points out, such things may not have existed during the Renaissance, but they certainly do at a Renaissance Faire). The beer is also brewed on grounds, and the wine comes from a vineyard owned by Mount Hope Estates, which also owns the faire itself.

More detailed articles about the individual shows and independent acts, as well as the aforementioned vendors, will be included in upcoming segments of this column.

The Queen shows off her custom-designed marshmallow shooter, handmade by Craig Baratz of Sir Launch-a-lot. Photo courtesy of Photography by Michael Ulrich.

The Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire is located at 2775 Lebanon Road, Manheim, PA, approximately a two-hour drive from Washington, DC. It runs Saturdays, Sundays, and Labor Day Monday through October 28th. Ticket prices and ordering information can be found here.  For directions, click here.

Information about hotels and other area attractions can be found here. Note that it is an outdoor venue; please take care and dress appropriately. In cases of inclement weather (severe rain or snow), check the Faire’s website or call for information.

Finale videos (“Greensleeves” and “Little Beggarman”) are posted courtesy of Lori Duquette Remmey. Chess fight video is posted courtesy of Jennifer Christa Palmer.

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Photography by Michael Ulrich.

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