Friday, 19 February 2010

Medieval Times are some odd times

Before I can even begin, I have to add two warnings about the Medieval Times experience: one, if you suffer from asthma, allergies to dust or horses, or any other similar respiratory illness, make sure that you pre-medicate and take any necessary medication with you; two, avoid sitting in the first or second rows. I will explain.

But don't let me frighten you; in the right circumstances, Medieval Times make for some very good times. If you have young children who like this kind of thing—the knights, horses, princes, sword fights-type of thing—then you'll all have a great time. If you are a large group of open-minded folks looking for something different, then you'll have a good time. If you want to take your beau on a date, make sure she's into it first. Also, if you are a group, you'll pay a deep discount, which makes the experience much much better.

The thing was almost a complete surprise to me. I heard on Wednesday that my friend Jacqui Oakley was coming into town from Hamilton on Friday to take in Medieval Times for her birthday—short notice, but as a 9–5er and new homeowner, my Friday plans usually involve a distinct lack of activity, sometimes penetrated by yoga or a video; what I'm saying is I was free. I was also game, having wondered for many years what exactly went on inside the walls of that "castle" on the CNE grounds, formerly the Dominion Government building and the Arts, Crafts, and Hobbies building. (See it here, in the fourth and fifth pairs of pics.) You see, in my early teenage years, I was a Dungeons & Dragons fan, and Tolkien was long my very favourite author. This fascination with history and fantasy has stayed with me, and while I didn't expect Medieval Times to offer a precise reconstruction of the middle ages, I was curious as to precisely what they would offer.

My curiosity was not disappointed.

Here are a couple of immediate observations: Medieval Times is not a history lesson; it is entertainment—dinner theatre to be more precise. The company says that it is committed "to the accuracy of weapons and costumes", but I think I can say that it is not educational—particularly when it comes to the history that it purports to portray. As entertainment—dinner theatre—the audience is expected to participate, to cheer their knight (ours was the Yellow), respond to the unfolding narrative, and, if you like, to join the merriment during the pre-show, where the King's Chancellor will try to rally the crowd with subtle mocking, poor jokes, and a bad English accent.

Also, you will be gouged on drinks (with or without alcohol), and you will have your experience sold back to you in the form of pictures and collectibles.

Still, somehow I didn't have a bad time.

Here's how it goes. After you get your tickets, you receive a coloured crown that represents your knight (and seating area). Then you may have your picture taken with the princess on her throne. Then an usher will guide you into the medievally decorated common area, or "Knights' lounge", or "bar" where you can buy overpriced drinks in cups in the shape of horses' heads and sparkly goblets—if you can get the attention of a bar wench, that is. You can also meet the falconer and one of his birds here. You can visit "The Dungeon" for two dollars (none of us did, so I can't say any more about it). You can take a peek into the stables, and the aviary, which houses a couple more attractive and well behaved falcons. You can peruse the concession stands, "The King's Sale" one is called, and buy prince and princess costumes, child-sized wooden swords and shields, adult-sized replica steel swords and other assorted bits and bobs. I was half expecting to see bongs in the shape of dragons, but no, this is a family event after all. (However, I do recommend that you smuggle booze into the show. There are plenty of opportunities to mix it into a soft drink, in the lounge or at your table.)

I heard there was a court jester about the grounds, but I didn't see him. Eventually, the Chancellor climbs to the stage and offers something in the way of explanation of how the evening's festivities will unfold, and tries to raise a few rallying cries from the audience. Attention at this point is not mandatory, although the Chancellor will act disdainful if you ignore him. I thought a couple of fair-style games of skill and chance would have enhanced the medieval experience. At last, the Chancellor announces that it's time for dinner and the games, and the crowd is ushered into the heart of the castle to the arena.

You sit at arena-style tables, and the metal bowl with handle in front of you gives you an idea of how you will eat your dinner—without utensils. Soon, the games begin! I won't divulge the narrative, partly since I don't think I could reconstruct it accurately and partly because I wouldn't want to spoil it for anyone. But what follows are several acts of horsemanship, jousting, grandstanding, flag-carrying, hand-to-hand combat with a wide assortment of weapons—including swords, axes, morning stars, pike axes, and more, for you nerds out there—falconing, "Hollywood caliber" light shows, and overall, quite a bit of excitement. Sparks fly, knights jump, horses run, people cheer, dust rises, and good wins over evil. (That's not really a spoiler, is it?)

And dinner, well, it's a simple and tasty meal, built around two meat courses—half a roasted chicken and a barbecued rib. (There is a vegetarian option, but I didn't experience it.) The dinner is almost certainly very wasteful, though. I can't imagine that more than one-third of the people there ate the whole thing. There's also the issue of the dust. The games take place on sand, and the action stirs up that sand from the very start. I guarantee that no matter where you sit, your food acquires a fine or not-so-fine layer of dust, but the closer you are to the action, the more dust your food will have. It's possible that the very rear row of seat/tables might avoid this fate, since that row is behind the powerful fans that are supposed to keep the dust down and in the centre of the room, but that row was closed for the show I attended. I can only assume that the city's health department has determined that the amount and quality of dust that gets into the food is not harmful, and frankly, I didn't worry about it that much. (I guess if you eat quickly, you'll get less dust, too ;) There is also the curious experience of eating in the dark

The dust is also the reason I mention asthma and allergy sufferers, like myself. About half an hour into the show, I started to experience the laboured breathing that indicates the charming condition of asthma. Since I've never experienced a full-on asthma attack, and in the last 15 years, I've very seldom had significant trouble breathing, I often do not carry my asthma inhaler with me—as in this case. Perhaps I should have known, but I find no indication on the website that anyone should avoid the show for health reasons. Very unfortunately, this case was more serious than I'd experienced in 20 years! I left the arena for five or ten minutes to calm myself down, and when I returned, I managed to maintain control over my breathing, with difficulty. Naturally, this condition prevented me from focusing on and enjoying the rest of the show. At any rate, I got through it, although the after-effects lasted for a couple of days.

After the show, you can meet the knights in the lounge and continue your souvenir shopping, but all I wanted to do was get out of there.

Overall, my impression of the event is that it fills a strange void in Toronto's entertainment scene. I figure besides the families with children, the seats are filled with either enthusiasts or the curious. The former just love the show and the latter want to know what it's all about. And I guess Toronto has enough of them all to maintain the business. The entertainment is pretty good, but seems aimed at children more than adults. This is fine, since I assume young people and their families constitute the greater part of the audience. But I thought there were several relatively simple ways in which the show could be improved to make it more entertaining for adults, such as the fair games I mentioned, improved choreography, reduced dust clouds, a simpler, but more engaging story. The thing I found most interesting about Medieval Times was the spectacle itself: the fact that it exists at all and people go, the chintzy decorations and lack of atmosphere, the theme park feeling, the limited service and amusements, the people, the cast and staff... It all just seemed so weird.

Finally, unless you are in the enthusiast category, I simply don't recommend paying full price for a ticket (adult $63; under 12 $40; plus taxes). I don't think it's worth it. You're better of looking for or waiting for promotions. (For example, until the end of February 2010, there's a group promotion: four can go for $30 each.)

Have you experienced Medieval Times? Was it as interesting for you as it was for me?
Read on..!

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Art projects past: the YPF 24-hour Art Party

It feels like a long time in the past now, but about five or so years ago, I and a group of friends, the Young People's Foundation collective, performed our second major installation: the 24-Hour Art Party, also known as Days are Numbered + Aftermath. (Our first was really just a big party and fundraiser with a relatively small exhibition—does anyone have photos of that?) The object of the event was to create a work of art (approximately 7" x 7") every 24 minutes for 24 hours, producing a total of 60 pieces per artist. (13 or 14 of us participated.) It was awesome. At the end of the 24 hours, Galerie Accidentelle (at Spencer's and Mandy's boutique, Lemon Lime) was covered from floor to ceiling in art.

Well, I don't consider myself much of an illustrator, painter, or collage artist; I'm not visually creative enough to put together that many individual pieces in that amount of time. So I decided to make music instead, and here is a mix of my many pieces. (I did create a piece for every 24-minute period. Mostly I wrote out lyrics or thoughts on the process.)

The next day, Josh and I mixed it down from 60 tracks, and I dropped off a CD and discman at the gallery so viewers could look and listen. And now, finally, so can the whole world. Let me know what you think!

Track one
Track two
Track three
Track four
Track five
Track six
Track seven
Track eight
Track nine
Track ten
Track eleven
Track twelve
Track thirteen
Track fourteen
Track fifteen
Track sixteen
Track seventeen
Track eighteen
Track nineteen
Track twenty
Track twenty-one
Track twenty-two

Read on..!
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The New Dilettantes by Adam Gorley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.