“Listen,” says Patrick Rodgers, holding up one hand to hush the chatter. “Just stand still for a moment. What do you hear?” Looking out across the gently sloping, thickly forested landscape of West Fairmount Park, lush with spring blossoms of a dozen bold hues, it only takes three seconds to discern what the answer he’s waiting for with calm certitude is: birds, and no city. “Yep,” he agrees. “We are two minutes from City Line Avenue, three minutes from 76, and it is quiet enough to hear a pin drop.”
That veil of isolation—that ability to step directly from the traffic-and-skyscrapers fury of 21st-century urban life into a bucolic scene of semi-wilderness—was the deciding factor that prompted Rodgers and his business partners to choose this obscure Chamounix Drive location (a five-minute drive from the Mann Center) as the site of their bold new experiment: the Philadelphia Renaissance Faire, a medieval-themed weekend wonderland of staged swordplay, wandering bards and big chicken drumsticks that, unlike pretty much every other such festival in the nation, is based not in the exurban countryside—like the annual autumn Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire in Lancaster County, an hour and a half away—but within the borders of the city itself.
The Faire’s 2015 debut is a preview event comprising a single inaugural weekend, May 16–17. The show organizers—Rodgers, plus local event producer Gil Gnaan and Patrick Colleton of Connecticut’s Midsummer Fantasy Renaissance Faire—are looking ahead to a three-week season in 2016.
Designing a Ren fest specifically for a big-city audience, Rodgers says, has meant doing some things differently at this Faire than at most. For starters, its cast of performers boasts not just a merry improv troupe of knights, jugglers and tavern wenches but a relative big-name headliner: Hafþór Júlíus “Thor” Björnsson, the Icelandic strongman who stars in HBO’s Game of Thrones as “The Mountain,” the giant, 420-pound warrior who serves House Lannister. At the Philadelphia Renaissance Faire, Björnsson will play Thor, King of the Vikings, in a storyline that will see his crew of Norsemen land at the Faire’s fictional trade outpost of Amman.
That’s another way this festival is unique: Where most others are set decidedly in a fantasy version of medieval England or France, the Philadelphia Renaissance Faire boasts an elaborately constructed backstory that draws upon the full diversity of the Middle Ages’ most multicultural mercantile hubs. It pulls elements, for instance, from Moorish Iberia, the centuries-long era when Northern Africans occupied much of Spain, Sicily and France, and from the Jewish and Muslim cultures of Spanish Córdoba.
It’s a savvy, historically accurate way to envision a Renaissance fest that can reflect Philadelphia’s own cosmopolitan blend of ethnic heritages. Putting that ethos into place was a key part of the project’s appeal for Rodgers, who just marked his 20-year anniversary producing and promoting music and goth events in Philadelphia, and who cites far-flung world travel as one of the core inspirations for the array of entertainment he masterminds, ranging from his monthly “Tribe” club nights to his recently launched “Meals of Antiquity” series of ancient dinners.
The Faire’s entertainment lineup features 14 performance acts throughout the weekend, including fusion belly dancer Samantha Diaz, magician Michael Mirth, mythic-folk band Ashagal, comedian Lord Marshall Laww, contortionist Scarlet Checkers and more.
Philadelphia Renaissance Faire: May 16-17. Noon–8:30pm. One-day ticket: $20 ($15/kids). Weekend ticket: $35 ($30/kids). VIP packages for custom experiences with Hafþór Björnsson: $39–$269. 4100 Chamounix Drive, West Fairmount Park, on the grounds of the Cancer Support Community of Greater Philadelphia. phillyrenfaire.com