by Sir John Sanchez


id you hear the one about the gay Polish guy who drove his fruity friends--a Chinese, a Filipino, and a Puerto Rican--to the Renaissance Faire? I was there! Representing! And dreading. My pals' prodding got me to go to the fair with them, but all I was expecting was a heap of expensive craft-projects surrounded by amateur actors in feathered hats, all of them calling me "sirrah." And of course, I was right. But the shocker was that it was not half so hellish as it sounded.

Maybe I had a good time because I was feeling grateful to be alive that day. Our gay Polish driver, David, volunteered at the last minute to shuttle us to the fair's Tuxedo, New York, location, sparing us all a $30 bus ride. David, a bodybuilder and hat designer, is gifted with Rip Taylor's personality and Li'l Abner's body. (By eerie coincidence, he used to room with Al Capp's granddaughter in LA.) As we sat bumper to bumper on FDR Drive, David treated us to selections from his extensive tape collection, which includes the soundtracks from the American, French, and Japanese versions of Disney's hair-raising Haunted Mansion--they heightened my sense of mortality, and, as our pace picked up, so did David's driving. He's a man who knows his priorities, so he concentrated on impersonating the Golden Girls while giving rimming demonstrations on donuts--the road could figure itself out. Forget the Haunted Mansion--Mr. Toad's Wild Ride would have been the more appropriate tape.

Past the Bronx, David put in a tape of 80s hits from his early childhood. Between his disturbing Laura Branigan lip-synchs and many near-collisions, he had us screaming all the way until we pulled into the parking lot. It was packed, even though we'd noticed a conspicuous lack of "Renaissance Faire traffic" on the highway.

At the fair's entrance, a sign said that by edict of "the Queen," we couldn't bring in food or drink, which harkened back more to Woodstock '99 than the actual Renaissance. Meanwhile some teen thespian chick in dumpy Puritan gear was shouting at us and calling us sinners. But as we entered the fake village (which serves as a ski slope in the winter), the next actors we met were much easier to take--and they were selling beer! Surrounding them was a bunch of unpaid Renaissance groupies in less pulled-together costumes, shrieking with laughter as the servers took verbal swipes at each other while filling plastic cups with Bud. Nothing they said was that much of a gut-buster, but something about wearing a bed sheet and Doc Martens in broad daylight was lifting everyone's spirits mighty high. And it might not have been just the clothes; with their long scraggy hair, munchie-fed physiques, and dopey grins, these merry men and women had a unmistakable aging-stoner quality about them. What a relief! I'd been expecting deadly serious nit-pickers engaged in "accurate" lute-strummings and candle-dippings, but instead, it was half-assed clowns and the self-medicators who love them. The fair, it seems, is not so different than Manhattan.

And, as if to drive that point home, a shout rose up behind me heralding a parade--the Pagan Pride Parade, that is! The lead-off banner read SILENCE=INCINERATION a la ACT UP, and just then a child skipped by with a sign that read "I'm not pagan, but my spiritual advisor is." Did somebody let the ergot sit too long? Next it was off to the "Trial and Punishment" show where the "fashion advisor to the queen" accused "the man in the yellow shirt with no sleeves"--hey, that's David!--of "being more beautiful than I." He was dragged up onto the scaffold by bored-looking teenage bailiffs, and the players went into fake spasms of repressed lust and wittily interrogated him on his Hollingsbeck Police Department muscle-T. The Sheriff of Nottingham, a Tim Curry type in black leather, advocated for spanking as a penalty, but David's public defender came up with some "disguise defense" that I couldn't follow since there's no microphones in the Renaissance. Finally, Queen Elizabeth herself decreed to huzzahs all around "if the police officer Dave is in disguise, then disguises for everyone!"

The other shows weren't so amusing. The "Living Chess Game" turned out to be a real snoozer even though the teenage pickle vendor had recommended it. And the father and son knife throwing team was exactly the kind of incompetent amateur theatrical I'd been expecting. Soon, we'd had enough shows, which left us with the rip-off carnival games (price: $2; prize: a shiny gold sticker), the elephant ride, and lots and lots of shopping.

If you're looking for floral head garlands, bone-colored devil horns, and funnel cake all in the same location, the fair's your best bet. I couldn't help but admire the entrepreneurial moxie of whoever decided to stick colored tulle on sequined wristbands and sell them as "princess bracelets" when not even Princess Stephanie would wear something so flashy. Every time you turn around at the fair, there's some silver jewelry that's just perfect if you want that occult look without crossing over to scary goth territory. Several huts specialized in leather garb and feathered accessories; it didn't look like quality work, but if you were sorry you hadn't worn a costume, that was one solution. Another was the costume rental shop, where business looked slow; if I ran the fair, they'd have a fifty percent off sale after 3 PM. Most of our money went to the Henry VIII-style turkey legs (generous portions and not a rip-off at $4) and "meade" ($4 a glass and very helpful).

But the real hot item at the Renaissance Fair is the people who commit themselves to the illusion. Deeply into their corny roles, they appear to work all day without a break. Between hamming it up in shows like the maypole dance and the turtle race, they wander the fairground, energetically doing their bit for anyone who dares make eye contact. But, as actors are said to ask, what's these performers' motivation? It can't be the wages that carnival promoters are accustomed to paying, and besides, plenty of customers do pretty much the same thing for free. Maybe they're all laboring under the hope that this will be a stepping stone to the big time, or at least to Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding. But, really, name a star who got their start in the Renaissance.

No, I detect love at work--love of acting, love of the period, and lots of lusty love for one another. It doesn't take a Gallileo to see that, sale or not, the costumes are half off already. I can only imagine the steamy tangle of bawdy intrigue going on behind the scenes, and in butt-hugging tights and push-up bodices, no less. So if the Renaissance Faire is in actuality just a ruse to get tourists to fund an elaborate fetish scene for rural stoners, I say Renaissance Faires for everyone!