Faire Play

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C hivalry isn’t dead—for the next couple weekends, anyway, and on the Guilford Fairgrounds, at least.

Then and there, it’s the annual Robin Hood Springtime Festival, a souped-up Renaissance faire where knights roam, noblewomen entreat, bards strum, fools fool, wenches cackle, sorcerers incant, outlaws grin and fairies shimmer. Many of them are excellent professional actors, but many of them are attendees, too, dressed as handsome rogues and fair maidens, or favorite dragon-slayers, or pirates, or fairy princesses, or, well, pretty much anything.

Among the ornate characters seen this past weekend during the festival’s opening days were a glittering fairy with large red wings and a wendigo, an Algonquin demon with horns, googly eyes, lots of fur and an insatiable hunger for human flesh. One of the professional actors portrayed the wendigo’s perfect foil: a gentle “vegetarian zombie” going by the name Granny Grue, who has a cute animatronic critter on her shoulder that you can rub for magical protection. Gabriel Q, a high-pitched man both in voice and stature (he was standing on stilts), elicited hysterical laughs as a baby jester, his head atop a stuffed infant-sized body, itself atop a little floating stage.

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Don’t worry if your closet isn’t up to the challenge; costumes are encouraged but definitely not required. About one in four visitors chooses to come decked out, we’re told. Then again, it’s also easy to get outfitted onsite, between rental costumes and a huge number of tented shops selling every manner of medieval garb and instrument—hats, boots, tunics, vests, cloaks, gowns and more, plus kid and adult versions of weaponry. Accessories and decorations offer a middle ground for getting deeper into the Middle Ages—an occult-looking necklace, or a pair of horns or pointed ears, or a wizard’s wand, or a knight’s helmet might do the trick. Face paint or a henna tattoo could do as well.

Whatever your intended participation level, it’s hard not to get pulled into the festival’s immersive alternate universe. Costumed passersby address you as “m’lord” or “m’lady,” possibly inquiring about your strange clothes or the otherworldly technology you know as your cell phone. Meanwhile, a five-part adventure, playing out on various stages and at ground-level, too, pits the preening Prince John and his Sheriff of Nottingham against their boisterous arch-rivals Robin Hood and Little John, with interesting twists and more character development than you’d expect—especially for Maid Marian, who really doesn’t get much attention in the usual version. As you wend your way through the “village,” you may come upon pieces of the story happening right in your midst, independent of whether crowds are following along, making it all feel very real. You can also chat with the characters when they’re strolling about. (Prince John, for one, is a surprisingly fun conversationalist given his reputation.)

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There are other shows galore to entertain you, from the rousing drinking songs of Three Pints Shy, to the silly and soggy shenanigans of the Drenched Wenches (prepare to get a little wet, and you might find yourself on stage), to the antics of Pester the Jester or Larksalot the Juggler, to “Compleet Wurks of Wllm Shkspr Abridg’d,” featuring two jokesters taking great and hilarious license with the bard of bards. Medieval music abounds with The Harper and the Minstrel, the Sherwood Singers and others here and there.

As far as food and drink, the event’s menu has some of the simple and appropriate fare you’d expect at a medieval fair, like grilled steak on a stick and roasted turkey legs. Most offerings are more to-date, however, including a bunch of fried options that seem to abound only at outdoor festivals: Twinkies, Snickers, PB and J. Over at the Thunder House Tavern, the main sheltered pavilion, it just feels right to quaff down a stein of beer, mead, hard cider or lemonade. Kids in your entourage will probably want to step out into the sun to visit a jolly green dragon and his ice cream cart. Speaking of green, there isn’t much else of it in the food; some of the only legitimate ruffage you’ll find is at the Majestic Eatery, which has a veggie Peasant’s Soup, or at the Pickle Place, with its half-sours and dills.

Activities to get the heart pumping again, which cost extra, include axe-, dagger- and spear-throwing, and an archery range that calls to mind Robin Hood’s tournament victory of lore. For a contemporary twist, there’s archery tag, which has people shooting soft, bulbous-tipped arrows at each other and crouching behind blue barrels for protection. It’s a kinder version of paintball, and is yet one of the many things happening here that you probably shouldn’t try at home.

Not that it would be the same, anyway, without a long-haired, feathered-capped, pantalooned outlaw shooting arrows right back at you.

Robin Hood Springtime Festival
111 Lovers Ln, Guilford (map)
Sat-Sun 11am-7pm through June 8, 2014
(860) 478-5954
General Admission: $16, with discounts for young people and groups

Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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By day, Bonnie sells life insurance and financial products at her Woodbridge office. By night, she attends theater and writes reviews for the Middletown Press and her blog, which is partnered up with the New Haven Register. A reviewer for 25 years, she’s been a correspondent for the Middletown Press for the past 12. When the curtains go up, she loves being in the front row.

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