Bristol Renaissance Faire


                     by Dan Zeff

Kenosha, Wisconsin – The Bristol Renaissance Faire tries to bring alive Bristol, England, in 1574, when Queen Elizabeth I visited the little town. In that sense it’s sort of like “Brigadoon,” only in Elizabethan times instead of nineteenth century Scotland.

The Faire is located in an open area near Kenosha on summer weekends and accommodates several thousand visitors a day, many of them dressed in costume that reflect provincial England 450 years ago. Some of these costumes are really elaborate, including weapons of the day, head coverings, and armor. Curiously, on the day I attended many young female visitors seemed to have confused Elizabethan apparel with the costumes of a Turkish harem, but they all fit in with the general pageantry of the setting.

The Faire’s statistics are impressive. The festival claims more than 1,200 artisans and performers and 16 stages providing nonstop (and free) entertainment. Nearly 200 artisans and craft workers display their wares for sale, many giving demonstrations. You can also have your fortune told and your palm read and your face painted. You can enjoy a demonstration of falconry and, perhaps the most popular attraction on the grounds, the jousts that perform throughout the day, leading up to a “joust to the death” finale late afternoon.

Perhaps the most striking statistic is the low price of admission, $19.50 for adults and $9.50 for children 5 to 12. The Faire is open for nine hours a day, which means that a visitor who comes at the opening and leaves at the closing (and hundreds do) invests about $2.17 an hour in roaming the grounds and catching as many admission-free shows as desired. That may be the best deal, coastwise, in the metropolitan area.

Of course, the Faire offers visitors plenty of opportunities to spend their money, on food and beverage concessions, rides, souvenirs, and crafts. Signs at the entrance state that no food or beverages could be brought onto the grounds but the rule wasn’t enforced on our entrance and countless pack backs were carried into the Faire, I suspect containing bottles of water and sandwiches and snacks. Even so, it’s unlikely visitors won’t buy something to eat or drink during the day, possibly a roast turkey legs that has become the signature food item at the Faire.

The entertainment can reach a surprisingly high level. There are a number of Renaissance Faires around the country and the performers can make a circuit, juggling and fire eating and doing comedy routines from event to event. Which brings us to The Mud Show, the entertainment I make my highest priority every time I go to the Faire.

The Mud Show consists of a mud pit and three grizzled performers playing to a small amphitheater jammed with spectators. The show is a blend of very low comedy and the Jerry Springer show. The three men do various gross out stunts in the mud, engage the crowd in rapid fire backchat, and pass the hat at the end of each of the day’s five performances (the funniest part of the show).

The men of The Mud Show are a racy trio and much of the humor has a PG-13 and up tinge to it. But the Faire caters to a blue collar crowd that delights in the kind of raunchy comedy the Mud Show men deal out, and even though there were many youngsters in the crowd (loving the mud wallowing) I didn’t find a moment of the performance offensive—tasteless and vulgar yes, but never a cause of embarrassment.

The Mud Show performers are absolute masters of the comeback and insult. They are prepared for anything the crowd throws at them verbally and the repartee is barbed and hilarious. These are really gifted men in their chosen trade and their artistry should be sought out as soon as the customer enters the ground. This could be the best free show of the summer in Chicagoland, though most of the viewers happily sent their children down front to toss a dollar or two into a cap in return for an exhortation to return to their parents and get more.

The Faire operates rain or shine, and heat can be consideration. This is an outdoor experience and though there are small shops that are enclosed, patrons will be out in the heat and humidity for most of their visit. The weather doesn’t seem to daunt anyone, including the visitors wearing those heavy and bulky Elizabethan costumes. The performers wearing armor and engaging in sword fights and jousts must be in top condition to endure the heat with undiminished high spirits.

Other than The Mud Show, which really is a must see, the visitor can enter the grounds with no agenda. The best plan is no plan at all. Just wander through the craft and food areas, watch the turtles from a bridge over a pond, stop for a show already in progress, and generally let the day just develop at its own pace. For those who stay to the end, there is a big parade and a giant maypole dance on the village green to which all customers are invited to cavort. Then it’s out to the massive parking areas, hoping you remembered where you parked (parking is a very nominal $5). It will be a day and early evening well spent and all attendees should sleep very soundly that night.

The Bristol Renaissance Faire runs on Saturday and Sunday through September 3, Labor Day. The Faire is located west of I-94 at the Russell Road exit near Kenosha and just over the Illinois-Wisconsin state line. Call 847 3945 7773.

        Contact Dan at          July 2012

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