TEXAS RENAISSANCE FESTIVAL

WHAT WE KNOW:
The jugglers are Idiots.
The Beggars are in the Mud Pit.
The food's on a stick.

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW:
Is this a family thing or a...

  BYLINE: David Vance
  DATE: 11-04-1999
  PUBLICATION: The Austin American-Statesman

  Call me a flaming idiot, but I was skeptical about the Texas Renaissance Festival. I
  have friends who relish the experience of losing themselves in the past while gaining a
  new wardrobe of chain mail and Viking hats, kilts and cloaks. They call themselves
  "Rennies" and usually go for a weekend and camp on the grounds, though it makes a
  serviceable daytrip. But I wondered, when asked to tag along, would you really want to
  spend a whole day there, let alone a weekend? Is it a family affair or just for
  fantasy-seekers? Exactly what do you do?

  Well, with apologies to Ceasar, I went, I saw, and though I wasn't entirely conquered, I
  entered the time warp.

  Coming upon the festival, set deep in the woods, you're unaware of anything
  remarkable. The immense parking lot hints at something big, but only once inside the
  gates do you realize what attracts the faithful and the curious. It's essentially a
  re-created 16th-century village, with shops, restaurants and amphitheaters, though also
  with anachronistic, yet welcome, modern restrooms and an ATM. These amazing
  grounds come alive with a Maypole, English gardens and a landscape filled with
  costumed characters out of a Dickens novel.

  Both a family affair and fantasy festival, the funlovers arrive from all over, judging by the
  license plates from various states and the Japanese and German overheard inside.
  The crowd ends up a mlange of retirees, mohawked punks and stroller-pushing
  families.

  But still, what to do? For one, if you go before the festival ends this year, you'll be able
  to see the real Flaming Idiots. An Austin-based juggling/comedy/audience-climbing
  troupe, the Idiots end their long run at the festival this year. The audience eats up their
  acrobatic humor, and they are well worth seeing. (Before going on to shows
  off-Broadway, they have a December run in Austin at Zachary Scott Theater.)

  While the Flaming Idiots show is probably the best-attended, outside of the chariot
  racing, jousting and the ATM, the most raucous show belongs to the Sturdy Beggars.
  Basically the World Wrestling Federation on haggis, the Beggars hold fort at the Mud
  Pit and the audience chants can be heard all over the grounds.

  Other favorites were the aforementioned Chariot Races and Royal Jousting, both free
  and both enacted quite realistically by local ranchers. The sporting competition had
  hundreds of cheering fans (myself included) out of their seats. As for the food, however,
  be prepared for the usual festival fare of turkey legs and meat on a stick, tempered with
  modern Tex-Mex and Italian.

  A large part of the allure, though, is not the performers or the park itself, but rather the
  festival-goers who dress up . They delight in the opportunity to change their identity and
  act out in peculiarly period-specific ways. It's not uncommon to see near-naked women
  or to be insultingly welcomed in ye olde King's English by an authentically dressed
  urchin. For every paid perfomer, there are five bikers dressed as Vikings in seal skin,
  vamps in chain mail or costumed prostitutes in push-up bras.

  Which brings up a strange paradox of the Festival. Marketed as a wholesome family
  event with kiddie games and family shows, a strong subtext of sexuality runs through the
  Festival. From the sultry barmaids to a wet wench in a thong hurling suggestive insults
  from the dunking booth, this not-so-subtle sensuality pervades the atmosphere. Most
  people, especially families, seem to ignore all the suggestive bluster , figuring their kids
  see and hear far worse on cable TV.

  The Renaissance Festival is not just about the shows, the sex or the people though. It's
  also about the shopping. With hundreds of "shoppes" selling everything from $5,000
  imported figurines from Asia to a $2 grain of rice with your clan name on it,
  commercialism is a large theme of this theme park. Add $3 for an elephant ride or $2
  for three throws at the Drench-A-Wench dunking booth, and the fun adds up, hence the
  ATM line. The Festival claims to strive for absolute authenticity, regulating the dress,
  actions and speech of all its performers, but it's a hard claim to swallow when the
  insignia on the King's stand at the chariot track boasts "Miller Lite salutes the Royal
  Games!"

  Make no mistake, the Texas Renaissance Festival is indeed a theme park, and the
  theme may have been best expressed by a leather-clad man in the daily parade who
  bellowed, "This parade is the only free thing you get to do today, so smile and wave!"
  That's not entirely true, but just because many events cost extra, doesn't mean it can't
  be fun. Thousands of families with fannie packs marveled at the mix of commercialism
  and authenticity, sex and wholesome entertainment.

  The authentic yet anachronistic adventure can be jovially amusing, even if you're a
  family, a fantasy-seeker or a flaming idiot like me.

  When: 9 a.m. to dusk Saturday and Sunday, through Nov. 14
  Where: On FM 1774, between Magnolia and Plantersville, 45 minutes northwest of Houston
  How much: $17.95 adults; $8.95 kids
  Info: (800) 458-3435; www.texrenfest.com