Preview: Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival goes back in time with knights, wenches and fair ladies


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Hear ye, hear ye: The annual Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival is nigh -- complete with Washing Well Wenches, goblets of mead, chivalrous knights on brave steeds and tomato tosses.

Starting Saturday and continuing every weekend through Sept. 30 (plus Labor Day), tens of thousands of people will descend on a former farm in Westmoreland County near West Newton for an event that will allow them to forget the 21st century, if only for a few hours.

"Chivalry is not dead," declared the festival's director of marketing, Jim Paradise, whose company, Rocky Mountain Festivals, owns and operates the Pittsburgh festival and a second one near Denver. "You'll be able to see knights in shining armor jousting for their fair ladies -- and it's real armor."

Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival

Where: Festival grounds, 6 miles west of New Stanton off I-70.

Times: 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 30 and Labor Day, rain or shine.

Admission: $16.95 adults, $8 children (age 5-12; children under 5 free). Discount coupons available at Wendy's; discount tickets available at Walgreen's. Free parking. No pets allowed.

Information: www.pittsburghrenfest.com or 724-872-1670.

THEMED WEEKENDS

Saturday-Sunday: "An Adventure to the Past" -- A celebration of music and dance as the royal welcome mat is put out for King Henry and Queen Katherine's arrival at the castle. Buy one, get one free offer at Wendy's restaurants.

Sept. 1-3: Children's Weekend -- Prince, Princess & Pirate Party: Children 12 and under admitted free with a paying adult. Activities include the Prince, Princess and Pirate Costume Contest, the Royal Quest, knighting ceremonies and photos with the King and Queen.

Sept. 8-9: Wine Revelry -- Participate in the Grape Stomp Competitions for prizes, as well as free sampling from local Pennsylvania wineries.

Sept. 15-16: Irish Festivalis -- Irish dancing, music, beer, foods from the Emerald Isle.

Sept. 22-23: Celtic Fling -- Celtic musicians, Scottish pipe bands and madrigal singers throughout the Realm. Also, Men in Kilts Contest.

Sept. 29-30: Oktoberfest: A Final Huzzah -- Join village hosts King Henry and Queen Katherine in an Oktoberfest Celebration and a Farewell to the Festival Season with German foods, dancing and music.

The festival, which is celebrating its sixth year in that location, is all about 16th-century Europe -- at least the nice, non-bloody aspect of 16th-century Europe. Sure, there's theme park food in the form of pizza and nachos, but there's also fish and chips and beer, and, on the Oktoberfest-themed last weekend, plenty of bratwurst and sauerkraut.

"Actually, we're not a re-enactment of a Renaissance world, we're a fantasy kingdom for people to escape from everyday life," Mr. Paradise said. "There is interaction between our Royal Court and our patrons. Our king and queen are hands-on."

There are no beheadings or dragon slayings, but there are bad guys and good guys jousting on horseback (guess who wins) on The King's Field of Honor; games of skill using real axes, daggers and darts; and "Vegetable Justice" in the form of a tomato toss, where participants try to dunk authority figures -- and if they miss, they get a stream of insults.

Renaissance festivals, along with Civil War re-enactments, seem to be a phenomenon unto themselves, with passionate devotees who like to mingle with people in period costume -- whoops, "garb" -- speaking in strangled Olde English and chewing on smoked turkey "haunches." The hit television series "The Gilmore Girls" used these renaissance fests as something of a punchline, but this fair's 350 participants -- craftspeople, musicians, magicians, fairies, bawds -- work very hard to make the experience a magical one, said Mr. Paradise.

"We have an actual blacksmith that does live demonstrations," along with music from a carillon, a medieval instrument -- allegedly only one of two in the country -- made from four tons of bells, played by a masked man and emitting an eerie sound, and a new bagpipe and drum band, Craic, "that I would put up against Bruce Springsteen any day."

Last year, 59,000 people attended the Pittsburgh festival over its 13 days, said Mr. Paradise, whereas more than 200,000 attended the company's other fair south of Denver, attracted, no doubt, not just to the entertainment but the shopping opportunities: booth after booth of handmade jewelry, pottery, bronze sculptures, leatherware, bamboo flutes, dried flower wreaths, chalices, lotions, candles and other gewgaws and frippery.

There are five themed weekends, devoted to children, wine and Irish, Celtic and German culture.

It's not clear if this year's festival will fall victim to a Pirates playoff game or two, but the only competition this Renaissance Fair usually has is "the weather," Mr. Paradise said. "You need good weather."

Now about those Washing Well Wenches: They're a comedy improv duo, and, according to the festival's press release, these two feisty lasses -- Whinny and Izzy -- make doing the laundry funny, providing "rollicking laughter, hysterical comedy and of course, clean clothes!"

Seriously.

"It's stuff you won't see anywhere else." said Mr. Paradise. "If you look at our Washing Well Wenches and watch them and don't laugh, then there's something wrong with you."

lifestyle - neigh_westmoreland

Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949. First Published August 23, 2012 4:00 AM


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