Strolling through the gates of the Virginia Renaissance Faire in Spotsylvania County, visitors are greeted by costumed dancers slowly encircling a towering maypole. They twirl in time to a ditty performed by a medieval band, led on recorder by Alexandria resident Katherine Cole.
"I'm a minstrel, good sir," said Cole, a music teacher at John Adams Elementary School in Alexandria, who speaks with a faux British accent. "If you like having a day full of fun, interacting with a wonderful cast of characters, shopping, music and dancing — this is the place."
The all-volunteer, nonprofit Virginia Renaissance Faire is marking its fifth year at the Lake Anne Winery, located about an hour south of Washington, D.C.
Many of the festival's 100 volunteer cast members — comprised of lawyers, car mechanics, computer technicians, doctors and college students — say they are driven by a desire to become another person for a day and to educate visitors about 16th Century English culture.
"Here in Virginia we don't like our history with little pink umbrellas," said the fair's organizer Cornelia Miller Rutherford. "We want our history straight-up."
Rutherford, a Reston systems analyst, said the Renaissance Faire is family-friendly and worth the drive.
"You tell me something else where you can take mom, dad, the kids, grandma and grandpa," she said. "They'll all have a hell of a good time for $5 a pop."
LAST SATURDAY, as the festival officially opened, visitors gathered around a wooden stage as David "Bagel" Baker juggled three wicked-looking knives, tossing them between his legs and behind his back.
"If one of the blades goes into the audience, leave it right where it lands — in the wound," he warned.
Around the corner, a woman in leather practiced cracking a bullwhip underneath a giant black pirate flag. In a nearby shady grove, a "gypsy" named Madam Zuzah taught young girls how to belly dance.
A vendor from Pittsburgh was hawking hand-made toy crossbows that launch marshmallows and rubber band-firing muskets. In another tent, a Texan dressed in a pirate outfit sold $10 throwing knives out of a "treasure chest" he carved by hand. Under the pub tent, patrons downed goblets of beer as more belly dancers entertained.
On a stage in the woods, Andrea LaMantia, of New York, received a medieval make-over, as "lords" and "ladies" dressed her in a regal costume.
"We call it 'Ren Eye for the Modern Guy,'" Rutherford said.
In a gated field, horseback riders demonstrated their jousting prowess, spearing apples and chopping apples with swords as they passed.
"Give it up for the Baroness!," the crowd cheered after a rider in a blue dress sliced in two a head of iceberg lettuce.
Visitors also had the chance to try their hand at several medieval games. At the "Ratapult," participants pay $1 to fling toy rats via a catapult into the smiling mouth of a painted wooden cat wearing an eye-patch.
Several muscled men also showed off their strength at the stone toss game, in which patrons see how far they can hurl a massive rock.
One blonde woman, dressed in a flowing Renaissance gown, declined an offer to throw the rock, saying "I don't want to embarrass the men in public."
Bagel, the juggler, overheard and responded, "Well, does milady prefer to embarrass men in private? Or do they do that themselves?"
Later in the afternoon, medieval archery expert Susan Morrison taught a crowd about the history of and how to fire crossbows and longbows.
"We promised the queen we wouldn't use the patrons as targets this year," Morrison said, as she fired an arrow at a bull's eye. "I don't know why, but last year she got upset."
MEANWHILE, Bradley Cox, a 24-year-old Springfield resident, demonstrated the use of a bill, a long spear with a curved blade.
"This is how you kill someone riding a horse," he said, kneeling down and pointing the weapon at an upward angle.
Cox, dressed in a leather breastplate imprinted with dragons, has been re-enacting at the Renaissance Faire for two years, having been pulled in after his mother volunteered.
Cox teaches visitors about the history of 16th Century weapons. Typically, he'll run visitors through a few military drills before allowing them to hack away with mock weapons at a piece of wood.
"It's fun," he said. "I like people to get involved physically."
Dexter Guptill, a Centreville resident, stood nearby in the military area, teaching a gathering of boys how to fire matchlock muskets.
Guptill, who says he can lecture for six hours on any firearm — from "medieval cannons to assault rifles" — barks at one youngster, "I told you to always keep the rifle pointed in a safe direction."
The boy in question, peering down the barrel of a fake musket, grins. "He thinks I'm kidding," Guptill grumbled, shaking his head.
Guptill, a computer engineer, has been re-enacting history for 30 years, first getting involved with the Society for Creative Anachronism while a student at the University of Virginia. That organization, popular on college campuses, has its participants fight each other with swords and battle axes.
"I love the total immersion aspect of re-enacting history," Guptill said. "Sure, I want to go home to a hot bath afterward, but I enjoy it during the weekends."
In high school, Guptill said, he had a history teacher who "made the Battle of Hastings sound boring." Guptill's goal of re-enacting, he said, is to make history come alive for young people.
"The whole point of this is that people who make history boring are doing a disservice," he said. "Hopefully we can teach these people a few things while they're here."