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The North Carolina Renaissance Faire takes place this weekend in the Heritage Village on the state fairgrounds in Raleigh--and simultaneously in a parallel universe called Kingston-upon-Hull, Raleigh's sister city in England, circa 1571. Although there will be much evidence that it's 2001, from the patrons' casual attire to the merchants hawking plastic lances and hot pretzels, there will also be knights and armorers, court ladies and jesters. Now in its seventh year, the Faire runs for only one weekend, but volunteers working the "Ren Faire circuit" come from Alabama, Georgia, New York and other states, and patrons come from as far away as California. Every year, a group of actors walks the fairgrounds staging historically accurate scenes. In this year's story line, Queen Elizabeth attends the wedding of Anne Cecil and Edward de Vere. The company includes four of the Queen's suitors, and there will be much discussion and gossip over whom the Queen should marry. (In case you don't remember, she's the one who went down in history as "The Virgin Queen.") The actors--all volunteers--must be so well-versed in their characters that they can respond to queries from similarly educated patrons, and stay in character as they wander the grounds between their scripted scenes.

This year's Faire will feature jousters from different countries, a Viking boat and a Maypole. Children can go on a dragon's egg hunt or have their pictures taken with a baby tiger. The Dream Weavers theatrical company will present the hatching of a dragon's egg, a production which involves the incredible costumes of Animal X, an award-winning nationally known costumer. Demonstrations of swordplay and medieval and Renaissance crafts will be conducted by members of the Society for Creative Anachronism and others. Vendors will be selling swords of wood, plastic and steel, velvet pouches, jewelry, armor, and books. The food vendors hawk your standard fair fare: meat on a stick, lemonade, barbecue.

The Renaissance Rally, an outreach program geared toward children in 6th grade and up, is scheduled for Wednesday, March 28, the day before the Faire opens to the public. The Rally lasts for about an hour and will feature full-contact jousting, a demonstration on donning armor, an appearance by Queen Elizabeth and her court, and a medieval lunch (picture King Henry and his drumstick). How long does it take to link tiny metal rings together to make a chainmail shirt? What does the world look like through the visor of a knight's helmet? How does it feel to be in the middle of Queen Elizabeth's court or to watch an armored knight unseat another in mock battle? The Faire provides a visceral sense of history, but with just the right amount of safety. "All steel must be sheathed and peace-tied," the Faire's Web site warns. "No polearms or Black Powder pistols."

Flying in the face of historical accuracy, a great many women participate in the swordplay and jousting. According to Faire director Donna Varner-Sheaves, a small number of the female attendants would have been trained to protect the Queen. But dueling and jousting were not the norm for women in 1571. You can blame some of this creative anachronism on Xena, but most of it stems from the fact that not every woman wants to be a buxom, anonymous wench in the crowd. And in the fierce North Carolina sun, a lot of those wenches are sporting lobster-red cleavage ("bodice burn") by the second day of the Faire.

The North Carolina Renaissance Faire will be held on March 31 and April 1, from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the N.C. State Fairgrounds. Admission is $5 for children ages 5-12 and $10 for adults. For more information, call (919) 755-8004 or go to www.NCRENFAIRE.com.

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