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'Huzzah & Welcome': Medieval enthusiasts gather at Holly's annual Renaissance Festival

By Anna Sadovskaya, Assitant Arts Editor
Published September 6, 2012

The stands were heavy with anticipation as six knights mounted their valiant steeds preparing for the royal joust. Pretty girls waved ribbons and sang songs of encouragement. But it all seemed to fall on deaf ears. The knights were fiercely focused, steadying their lances, carefully assessing the fortitude of the wind and the firmness of the ground.

One of the knights rode forward. He began an eloquent introduction to the competition, when another knight interjected:

“I feel bad for his horse,” the second knight roared to the crowd. “He doesn’t know he has a turd on his back.”

The Michigan Renaissance Festival Joust was off to an expected start — the six knights guffawing and berating each other for the crowd’s entertainment. As soon as the events began, each rode through an obstacle course that included chasing a boy in a bull mask and smashing a sword through the top of his horns, eliciting wild cheers from the crowd and more waving from the damsels.

At the joust, and the rest of “RenFest,” held annually in Holly, Mich., there was an inescapable feeling of excitement and originality. Girls in dainty fairy costumes and wide ringlets grasped giant turkey legs, eating meat straight from the bone. Boys ran with wooden swords and capes, trying to get the attention of Merbella Mermaids — women dressed in mermaid fins — swimming in a pond.

For those unfamiliar with the intricacies of RenFest, it might seem like a Disney World for medieval-attired adults who love ale and make-believe. Though crazy costumes abound, RenFest offers much more than a day of chasing mermaids and playing dress-up. It is the blur between reality and fiction that allows the event to surpass stereotypes and for visitors to interact with the festival.

Setting the scene

Started in 1979 in Clarkston, Mich., this Renaissance Festival boasts nearly 15 acres of medieval English life at its current location in Holly, an hour north of Ann Arbor. Stepping into the walls of Hollygrove — the fictional village after which RenFest is modeled — provides an escape from 2012. It launches guests into the 16th century every weekend beginning mid-August and continuing through the end of September.

“It’s great seeing the people that don’t work here, but go through all the trouble to make a costume,” said Mark Vukelich, a University of Michigan-Dearborn junior and RenFest actor. “It’s meant to be an escape for people; they get to come out of the 21st century for a couple hours.”

Vukelich, who studies theater, was attracted by the fantasy world and its acting possibilities.

“I met some of the people, started doing the rehearsals, and then it just took off,” Vukelich said. “I got together with a friend of mine, masterminded a costume, and got out here.”

Vukelich says his enjoyment comes from this engagement with the festival guests. He approached a woman waiting in line and challenged her to a duel of sorts. The woman obliged, and Vukelich began challenging her to jump up and down five times while holding her arms above her head. Vukelich bowed and admitted her a worthy opponent.

“My favorite part is seeing the looks on people’s faces after you’ve taken a day that’s hot, and they’re plodding around, carrying all this stuff, and they’re getting to the point thinking ‘Why the hell did I come out here today?’ and you go up to them and start yelling at them, and you make them jump around and it makes their day,” Vukelich said. “You get a picture taken and they remember it forever.”

Ye olde Diet Pepsi

The many village shops sell everything from crystal balls to Crystal Stix, and as women dressed in gowns yell for you to come and “take a sip of ye olde Gatorade,” the clash of old and new is less jarring than it is hilarious and welcoming. Despite the medieval transformation of the 21st century, the festival seamlessly combines new and old.

Girls cool themselves with portable fans on their breaks and shopkeepers alternate between saying, “The sword is made of dragon’s tooth” and “Is that credit or debit?” There’s something riveting in the combination of make-believe and reality that comes together at RenFest, and people take notice.

“Well, you’re obviously still in America, and everyone has a stroller and a Diet Pepsi in hand, but come on, look at that guy selling pickles,” said Kevin Palki, a long-time RenFest enthusiast and visitor. “Why would you ever need someone selling pickles to you out there? You don’t, but here it makes sense, and you buy a pickle.”

Kevin’s son, Jeremy, pickle-in-mouth, nodded enthusiastically. Mary Palki, wiping her own pickle-stained chin, clarified her husband’s words:

“It’s just really interesting to be immersed in all of this, while still having a cell phone and credit cards and what not,” Mary Palki said. “The difference is very entertaining, and that’s really why we come back: to be entertained!”

“Stay in school”

The Palkis were not the only family to seek amusement. As a crowd formed around a small, wagon-like booth in the middle of the road, a mystical voice sang from the heart of the gathering:

“Come and watch me play with balls!”

Douglas Michael Shell, or “Flec” to the RenFest guests, was beginning his show. As a contact juggler, Flec spits fire, walks on tight-ropes and balances crystal balls on his body and the tips of his fingers.

“Not unlike that thing David Bowie did in the movie ‘Labyrinth,’ ” Flec said.

After the display of crystal ball prowess, Flec starts to eat and spit fire to the astonishment of his crowd.

“There’s a lot of fire entertainment that I do, do,” Flec said. “I said do-do, but there’s no crap involved here, just a good show.”

Flec has frequented the festival for over a decade. He said he started out as an avid festival-goer and transformed into a performer over the years.

“When I was 13 or 14 I started working at the Crystal Stix booth, but not really working, I’d just hang out there all day and show people how to use (the Crystal Stix),” Flec said. “One day they gave me a free set of sticks and were like ‘you’ve earned these’ so I kept coming back and one day they started giving me money, they’d say ‘Well, you helped sell like 12 sets so …’. ”

After joining the ranks of shopkeepers and merchants, Flec began working on his own craft, opening his wagon-inspired booth some years later.

“I thought, it’d be great if I dressed up like gypsy boy, and I had a crystal ball, and a turban with a feather in it and I tried to look fortune teller-esque,” Flec said.

Flec’s favorite aspect of the festival is the fluidity that kept things interesting.

“Every year things get a bit different, change a bit and get better. I mean, I juggle balls for a living!” Flec said. “What I’m trying to tell you to do is, stay in school.”

Sit back, relax and enjoy the kilts

Outside of the main-street vendors and side-alley entertainers, bands and singers congregate on set-up stages and begin their acts for the crowd. Whether it’s singing and drumming earthy tunes like the Sirena Sirens, a mystical music group, or the tribal style dance of Zingara Music and Dance, visitors can sit in and experience a RenFest show.

“The acts are phenomenal,” Mary Palki said. “We just got back from seeing the Merbella Mermaids, and they have it set up so well, and the mermaids look so real! I had to keep reminding myself, ‘They don’t exist Mary! They’re not real!’ ”

Despite the lack of real-life mermaids, patrons don’t let these details stop them from enjoying both the show and the costumes.

Walking through Hollygrove is reminiscent of a costume party, only less child-oriented and more truly medieval. Women dressed as pirates, pirates dressed as women, men dressed as trees and men dressed in kilts all attend the RenFest. Fashion takes on a new meaning.

“I dressed up as a fox because I felt like it would make sense when I got here,” said Kendra Fletcher, one of the costumed individuals attending the festival. “And it does! Everyone is dressed up and having fun.”

Fun seems to be the key word at RenFest, as everyone from toddlers to grandparents enjoys walking through Hollygrove, expecting the unexpected. Oh, and kilts. Expect a lot of kilts.