I’m not a fantasy guy.
I’m a nerd for sure, but I fell asleep watching Lord of the Rings as a kid. My dad is still surprised I never warmed to those “elf movies."
But life’s short and for living and I soon learned that Sarasota was going to be having not one, but two medieval festivals in November.
How often are there knights and elf people in your town? Here's how they went.
SunCoast Renaissance Festival
I quickly realized what I’d be in for at Renaissance fest when I met a group of well-dressed lords and ladies near the entrance.
I was expecting to meet a few Peters and Pauls, maybe even a Chet, but they introduced themselves as Prince of Jon of England, Sir Gui of Gisborn and the Sheriff of Nottingham.
I was impressed — they had fancy swords, a high-born way of talking and a refusal to break character.
It seemed like almost everyone was in costume — elves, sorcerers, pirates, even a few steampunk operators. Children were going on elephant rides while others were firing arrows at the archery zone.
And it's not just performers. Whole families come in period costumes, often helping to set the scene better than a guy in jorts and a Dale Earnhardt Jr. T-shirt.
At the far end of the SunCoast Renaissance Fair, there is a man named Dustin Cawood — but many call him the Pickle Man.
If you’re polite and carry coin, he will sell you pickles. He also has a macaw named Maui Wowee, who will bid you hello. The bird can also curse at you.
Sarasota Medieval Fair
It was a muddy Sunday when I arrived at the Sarasota Medieval Fair, which I supposed played up the medieval filth of it all.
Throngs of people milled about the fair, picking up gifts and drinking mead and checking out the many attractions. There were birds of prey shows, plays for the children, and even a tiny little market area selling turkey legs and still more mead, a fermented beverage ranging from 3.5% to 18% alcohol in its classic form.
There weren’t as many people in costumes, but those who *were* looked off the chain.
Alessandra Pisano cared for birds of prey as a medieval bird keeper. Justin Peeples donned a complete armored knight design. Andrea Meythaler and Joe Monach were a disproportionately hot couple dressed as dragon lords Queen Volastra and King Deusignus.
Sarasota Medieval Fair had two adorned knights charging at one another to cheering crowds, though a couple guys actually heckled the production. Florida!
I have to give it to SunCoast Renaissance Festival, though. Theirs was a duel between Sir Brom and Sir Lilith — actors Jarrod Listiak and Erin Eisenmann respectively — that had the two jousting, throwing each other off horses, tossing sand in each other's eyes while clashing swords.
It was like pro wrestling but more (and less) dorky.
Jarrod Listiak is a full-time performer with Noble Cause Productions who’s been jousting as Sir Brom for 20 years in the U.S. and Europe.
The man made his costume out of his own fabric, adding metal gauntlets with fox/possum fur and using elk antler for his sword hilt. He wears a crown made from alligator fangs, though he tells people they’re dragon’s teeth.
“It doesn’t matter what a thing is, if you believe it then people will too,” Listiak said. “(You) get to be something you really want to be that you can’t be in real life.”
Human Combat Chess at Medieval Fair
The verve I was missing from the Medieval Fair’s jousting was palpable at their Human Combat Chess matches, which re-enacted the Battle of Falkirk and pits the Scots lead by William Wallace against the English army in a field made out like a chess pattern.
This ripped pretty hard. The choreography was a ton of fun, every actor was really getting into their character.
Heads were pretend snapped, throats were pretend slit, and the performers went so far as to act pretend dead for quite a while.
You can tell it’s a labor of love. Tara Connelly, Assistant Artistic Director, has been doing it since 2007.
“We’re out here every Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. rehearsing,” Connelly said. “You have to have trust in your fighting partners, these people are like my family.”
I’m not sure spinning kicks and suplexes are typically seen in chess but call it historical revisionism.
MVP of the Fair
My favorite performer was McDonald the Gravedigger, also known as Gary Conner, in the Human Combat Chess match.
McDonald recently had shoulder surgery so this year he knelt from the sideline and supported his team while heckling the others.
Near the end of the fight, an Englishmen got the better of a Scotsman and pretended to tear the gentleman's parts from his body, crushed them in his hands and threw them into the grass.
The entire fight — even as it ended and the king gave a speech — McDonald wept for poor victim and bemoaned how everyone was just moving on from this travesty.
An amazing detail in a great show.
Walking into the Sarasota Medieval Fair, I met Seneca Puleo, a Sarasota resident who attends every year with her mother Eve. They usually dress up in costume together, it’s been something of a tradition.
But Eve died from ALS last year. Puleo is going to the fair every weekend this month in tribute.
“It’s been rough,” Puleo said. “She wanted to come last year but COVID prevented it. I’m glad to be here, it sounds tacky but I can feel her here.”
These things matter — costumes and color and make-believe, it’s all tradition and community that become important for so many people. It’s all silly but it’s so fun, and it’s real enough.
I didn’t see it then, but I do now.
I’m going to both fairs next year, maybe as a jester. Hope to see you there.