The year is 1420, and our duke has just returned from the battlefield victorious against the French and hungry for a good evening’s feast. As the evening’s guests arrive, the court magician entertains and a fair maiden sings. Yet just after the duke and duchess are heralded into the room, the court accountant explains that all the taxes have gone missing.
"They’ve got to be somewhere," exclaims Tom Booth, assuming the British intonation of his role as the duke. "Go find it!"
Welcome to Medieval Madness, Old Town’s newest dinner-theater sensation. Since the Sunday night performances began in the upstairs room at Murphy’s Irish Pub last month, audience members have been treated to a bold night of very old-fashioned fun: an evening of frolicking from the 15th century. For the cost of $59 registration fee, viewers are treated to a four-course medieval meal, a singing maiden, a court magician, sword fighting knights and a royally amusing plot revolving around the mystery of a pilfered treasury.
"The customers eat and drink while the play is rolling along," said director Virginia Norton, one of the creators of "Captain John Smith: HiStory of McLean and Great Falls." "At one point, the audience members decide what kind of punishment one of the characters get."
<b>THE WHIMSICAL</b> nature and interactive elements of Medieval Madness date back to 1998, when Booth was asked to create a Medieval themed restaurant in Winston Salem, N.C. Although he studied the Renaissance at Yale University, the Middle Ages were a distant mirror for him. So he hit the books and put together a smash success for a restaurant known as "Lady Jackie’s Castle." Yet the two-year experiment ended abruptly when the restaurant unexpectedly changed management.
Booth went into commercial development and moved to Raleigh. But the Medieval bug had already bitten, and so Raleigh became the birthplace of the concept known as "Medieval Madness" — an interactive dinner theater performance that can take place at any venue large enough to seat 80 to 140 guests. The troupe has performed at vineyards, community group meeting halls, embassies and pubs. Although Murphy’s Irish Pub is the current location of Medieval Madness, organizers hope to branch out to other performance halls, Alexandria parades and public-school demonstrations.
"We are a nonprofit organization," explained Booth, referring to the Foundation for the Preservation of Medieval Arts and History. "Saving history is an important part of what we are doing."
<b>THE SHOW</b> is much more than lighthearted fun, with the highlight of the performance being a swordfight in which two knights using broadswords go at one another. But these knights are not acting. They are employing the 15th century sword fighting techniques of Hans Talhofer, a German fencing master whose illustrated treaties described methods of fighting with the long sword, long sword with spear, pole-axe, dueling shield, throated hooking shield, dagger, messer and the sword and buckler.
"This is something that basically disappeared with the advent of gunpowder," said Booth, who spent years doing primary research on Talhofer’s work. "The knights in Medieval Madness are actually competing for points, and the audience keeps score."
The knights don’t actually end up hitting each other, they just score points when they get past the guard of their opponents. The rules are explained to the audience in advance, which allows them to keep score as the action moves along. This introduces yet another interactive element into the evening because the swordfight is unscripted, and a different knight could end up winning each time Medieval Madness is performed. In North Carolina, Booth founded a group known as the Academy of the European Martial Arts — an operation he hopes to replicate in Northern Virginia as Medieval Madness takes root in Old Town.
"Alexandria has really been a red carpet for us," he said.