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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.