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Renaissance fest at MOSI is fit for a king

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 09:28 PM

Bauble the Blue Bubble Fairy carries a bucket filled with soapy water. She often dips into the suds to form bubbles with her hands. The bright blue creature doesn't say much as she wanders the forest with a wistful smile. She often plays peek-a-boo with children; and she will lock pinky fingers with a parent and encourage the adult to "come, play and dance."

"It's all about making everybody happy and making everybody feel they are part of the fantasy," says performer Samantha Wright, 24, of St. Petersburg, who won Rookie Cast Member of the Year in 2012 at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival.

She'll be returning as Bauble for this year's festival, which runs kicks off Saturday and runs weekends through April 7 at a 10-acre wooded tract off Fowler Avenue behind the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI).

Now in its 35th year, the Bay Area Renaissance Festival features jousting, human chess matches, pageantry, rides and vendors selling merchandise as well as food and drink — all presented in 16th century style.

There will be continuous entertainment on several stages. Jugglers, magic acts, comedy performances and musical acts are featured. More than 40,000 are expected to attend the themed-weekends (Irish fest, Italian fest, Celtic fest, Pirate fest). A tribute to chocolate and romance this weekend includes a free wine tasting, cupcake war, wooing contest and a messy "fudge fling."

Performer Wright, a legal assistant, band manager and spoken-word artist, says she long has been interested in acting. Being one of the "village folk" allows her to work on her improvisational skills.

Her Bauble is one of more than 100 characters that roam the fictional English Renaissance town of Fittleworth, among them an executioner, a butcher, a fish-monger, a leech breeder, milkmaids, gypsies, priests, soldiers, dukes, duchesses, barons, visitors from Italy, France and Spain, and the royal court of King Henry.

The local actors auditioned in the fall and have been in rehearsals since mid-January. They range from high school students to retirees. Some have been with the festival almost since it began in Largo. For example, Natalie Grist, 23, of Tampa, who has been working at the festival since she was a teen, is back this year as a shepherdess. And Clair Davis, 27, is back as an Italian Duchess.

These cast members not only add to the atmosphere, they entertain and engage the patrons, says actress and acting coach Caroline Jett, who supervises the casting and training of the cast. She also portrays Queen Catherine, wife of King Henry.

Jett helps the cast develop improvisational skills, a signature "hook line" and short routines ("bits") that they can do in character.

Jett says the cast works a "a long 8- or 9-hour day in the weather and in costume." "We want to give them as many tools as we can to be able to entertain the patrons and to keep up their own interest," she says.

Cast members are spread through the village and assigned to certain areas. They must never break character and always behave as if they were living in the 1500s.

Scott Mullen of Largo, a 24-year-veteran of the festival, portrays Sir Richard Devereux, a real historical figure who was an English swordsman. Mullen also is the festival's fight director. "We have two main combat-related shows, the tournament show and human chess match involving characters from the village," he says, comparing it to professional wrestling in that it's "the classic battle of good vs. evil."

It's also like stunt work: fist fights, swordplay and fighting with staffs. The challenge, he says, is to teach cast members not to hurt each other and not be afraid to make big bold moves.

In addition to the village cast members and the actors playing English Royalty and the contract professional stage performers, there are more than 100 people who will show up in costume and get into character on their own. These fans of the festival are known as "playtrons." They pay to get in, and some come each weekend.

"We've been doing it since the 1980s, the whole family," says Chris Northuis Kuck, 51, of Seminole, who has a closet-full of costumes. Her husband and children also attend in costume. "We don't join the cast because we just want to go and have fun," says Kuck, who may go as a gypsy one weekend and a noblewoman the next. She's been a pirate, a pauper and a princess.

"There may be as many as 200 playtrons in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, but most of us don't show up every time," she says. "We don't get paid, but we don't have to go to weeks of rehearsal or stay on script either."

Getting paid as a headlining act is the Demzarah Gypsy Show, a belly dancing/comedy troupe out of Safety Harbor. Head gypsies Tom and Darlene Trieste, owners of Renaissance Realty, say they started going to the festival as patrons years ago.

They were fans of a gypsy show that got their little daughter Jennifer up and dancing along. "So we started taking bellying dancing lessons and eventually got a chance to join the show," says Darlene. Tom doesn't belly dance. He plays music and cracks jokes. Daughter Jennifer is grown now with her own dancing troupe.

But she'll be back with her parents on stage at the festival for several 35-minute audience-participation shows daily (also featuring their 7-foot snake Zsa Zsa GaBoa). Another daughter, Jessica, will be joining the show, too.

"We also will be running the belly-dancing competition on March 23-24," says Darlene. "We're very excited about this year because we have some new funnies, new music and new dancers in the troupe. We have fans that will come to every show and fans who will even sit in the rain and cold to watch us."

BAY AREA RENAISSANCE FESTIVAL

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and weekends through April 7, and Friday March 22

Where: MOSI (wooded area behind museum), 11315 N. 46th St., Tampa

Tickets: $18.95 adults, $14.95 seniors, $10.95 children; www.bayarearenaissancefest.com

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