The 31st Annual Great Dickens Christmas Faire

Last weekend, Beth and I decided to continue our annual visit to the Great Dickens Christmas Fair and Victorian Holiday Party.  I wrote about this last year, too, and won’t spend a lot of time on it here, only to mention that we had a great time in spite of the gate cost.

What amazes me every year is that in an era of mass commercial production of goods, there exists an entire subculture economy of people who still hand-craft their products.  We had a pleasant conversation with a couple who make clothes and sell them not only at the Dickens Fair but all of the Renaissance Faires and SCA events, too.   You can visit their website at http://www.VelvetBedlam.com.

The cost of these goods is considerably more than what you’ll find at retailers like Target and Wal-Mart.  Quality hand-crafted goods will always be more expensive.  But if you’re the kind of person who would rather buy the cheap plastic crap at those stores, then the Dickens Fair/Renaissance Faire/SCA really isn’t for you anyway.

We spent most of our time taking in the stage shows and other presentations, which were free if you don’t count the gate cost.  We splurged and bought some roasted chestnuts and fudge, but for the most part the food was way over priced, and the argument could not be made that it was hand-crafted.

Asylum Improv – Pacifica Spindrift Players

Review: Asylum Improv
Pacifica Spindrift Players
Pacifica, California

I cannot imagine a more challenging social situation than trying to be improvisationally funny. Telling memorized jokes is easy. Reading a comedic script is a snap. Doing a stand-up routine that has been rehearsed and choreographed is a piece of cake compared to what the Asylum Improv does several times a year at the Spindrift Players in Pacifica, California.

It’s because of this that we don’t expect the actors of Asylum, lead by the very brave Roger Genereux, to be as funny as Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie, who are comedic geniuses, but they’re already funnier than Drew Carey.

It’s perhaps fortunate for the cast of Asylum that the audience consists primarily of the family and friends, and some die-hard community members, so we aren’t as critical as we could be. Asylum really does try hard to be funny, and one often gets the feeling that they are trying too hard. Sometimes desperately hard, which is evident when the look on an actor’s face plainly says, “Will somebody Please end this scene?” Which is echoed by Roger’s expression which says just as plainly, “Will somebody Please say something funny?”

There are, however, gems which make waiting through the embarrassing moments worthwhile.  We especially liked the efforts of Steve MattesKevin Myer and Lourie (whose last name I couldn’t find, but he’s the bloke with the almost-Irish brogue, softened, I think, by his years in the States).  Lourie can always be counted on for a funny routine involving the alphabet and/or the English language.  Tricia Callero once again wow’d us with her superb vocal skills.  We can’t help but think that if the entertainment industry really was a meritocracy, she’d already be head-lining.

The presentation could be improved if Roger could just relax a little.  We think he’s very smart and talented, but he often comes across as if he believes his entire worth as a human being is riding on the success or failure of the show.  And considering the amount of work he invests at Spindrift, we can’t blame him for feeling that.   But Roger:  We are going to like you anyway.  You have already proven yourself.  So relax.  Also, if you can’t read one of those audience suggestion slips, you should just toss it.  There is no entertainment value in watching you try to decipher somebody’s scribble.  And we know that it’s supposed to be improv, but perhaps a little more structure would help lubricate the show.

And we will be there when you return in March!

The Difference Between the SCA and the Renaissance Faire

My WMA instructors are a husband and wife team, Paul and Melissa, who own and operate Fearless Fitness. I arrive after work, and Melissa (or a member of her team) makes me sweat profusely for an hour.  We jump, run, do a multitude of ab, arm and leg strengthening exercises, and we learn to kick and punch.  After Melissa has worn me to an absolute frazzle, I pick up a wooden sword called a waster (longswords on Mondays, sideswords on Thursdays) and Paul tries his best to teach me the how to not kill myself with the steel kind.  He also throws in a couple of lessons in Italian and German languages, so with any luck I won’t sound like a complete idiot when I talk about swords in the world of sword enthusiasts.

Then I go home and take more ibuprofin.

Paul and Melissa are also the honored leaders of the Guild of St. Dismas, which is active in the local Renaissance Faire circuit. Several members of the guild are also my fellow students at Fearless.  Along with the various theatrical demonstrations normally associated with a Ren Faire guild, they also own and operate a trebouchet, largely for the purpose of disposing of surplus pumpkins after Halloween.

I have seen a couple of small scale trebouchets in action during SCA wars, but they only launch soft, safe projectiles short distances. (They are, after all, being launched towards human targets.)  Watching a larger scale trebouchet launch pumpkins to their doom tickled our fancy. Paul and Melissa invited us join them, so we loaded up with our SCA gear and drove to Fresno, California, where the St. Dismas trebouchet lives, to watch it in action.

While we have been to many Ren Faires in the past, we have never seen the “behind-the-scenes” workings before, and this experience really drove home some of the differences between the cultures of the SCA and Ren Faire.

The differences come down to this: The SCA attempts to create an internally consistent medieval universe for its own benefit.  The actors are also the audience.  The Ren Faire is theatre, put on primarily for the public, which pays an often usurious entry fee to see it, who then pay inflated prices for the crafts.

In the SCA, participants change from “mundane” clothing into SCA garb as soon as they arrive at an event, often Friday afternoon, and don’t change back into mundanes until they leave Sunday night.  Therefore, we were taken by complete surprise when the members of St. Dismas changed back into denizens of the 21st Century mere minutes after the Faire closed to the public.  It was like somebody had flipped a switch.  Quote one of the members, “Hey! After hours is after hours!”

This is not to say that one is better than the other, and certainly there’s a lot of overlap of participants between the two kinds of events.  Optimally, one should enjoy each kind of event for its own sake, and we had a great time. Though not so much for the event, but for the people.

Review: Camelot, Presented by the Pacifica Spindrift Players

There are two kinds of live theatre presentations we go see.  The first is a play we’ve never seen before.  We are going to experience the story.  We don’t know how it ends, we haven’t heard the jokes, and the songs are still unknown.  The second is a play that we’ve seen done and redone, and the point of the experience is to see how it’s presented.  We go to admire the singing and dancing, the acting, and the set design.

Obviously, Camelot falls into the second category.  Anybody who doesn’t already know the story is either very, very young or has been living in another dimension.  Even the aliens who live on a planet orbiting Tau Ceti know the Arthurian Legends. The themes in the play are timeless, and community theatres will be presenting the story even after we’ve evolved into something else.

The Pacifica Spindrift Players is a community troupe of entertainers in Pacifica, California.  We have experienced some wonderful plays there, two of which leap immediately to mind are Cry Havoc, a story about nurses in the Pacific Theater of US Army during World War II, and Sylvia, which brought a tear to the eye of every dog lover in the audience.  (Cat lovers are an alien species to me, so I can’t vouch for them.)  Sylvia, to my mind, did not get near the ovation it deserved.

Back to Camelot.  In a nutshell: The singing by Chris Olson (who looked like he was born for the role of Arthur), Michele Choe and Greg Frediani was wonderful. The acting was satisfactory.  The dancing was — well, there was dancing.  The set design was minimalist.

Let’s talk about this set design business.  I know it’s difficult to pull off great set designs on small stages. But to simply blow it off by giving us two stone walls and two halves of trees was disappointing.  And there was this gigantic projection screen in the back that kept promising to do something, but it was only used as a psychedelic backdrop for the Nimuë scene.  Seemed to me like it could have been used far more effectively.   Having this huge white thing in center stage rear for the entire play was distracting to say the least.

I believe that the minimalist set design and staging was intended to focus the audience’s attention on the actors, but that could have been accomplished with a little more art in the set.   Especially in the scene in Guenevere’s bedroom when she sang her solo, I Loved You Once in Silence.  Lancelot stood like a statue for three minutes during this song.  Yes, the audience’s attention was focused on Guenevere, but that could have been accomplished without making Lancelot look like he was paralyzed by Medusa.

My recommendation on this presentation is to buy the CD for the singing, but the trip to Pacifica to see the presentation isn’t worth the price of the gasoline.  Going to a reading of the play would have been as satisfactory.