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Getting lost in medieval magic

For eight weeks every winter, the desert outside Apache Junction gets downright Medieval. The Arizona Renaissance Festival is about 40 miles – and 500 years – from Phoenix. I recently visited the fair, which continues weekends through March, with one goal in mind: to find the most fascinating person at the party.

It was a cold and gray Saturday, more reminiscent of merry old England than the sunny Southwest. I started my quest where all patrons begin their trip into the Middle Ages: at the gates of Fairhaven, the name of this mythical mini village. Before I even stepped inside, my senses were overloaded.

A colorful crowd of maidens and jesters and various townsfolk instantly appeared, all in bright costumes and most with manic energy. There are 2,000 characters at the fair, and apparently no one is a wallflower.

“Who is the most intriguing person here?” I asked a caped man with a dramatic, curly-cue mustache and red scarf.

He responded without hesitation.

“That would be me, of course,” he said, with a wallop of bravado. “I am the most wonderful human being who ever lived. My name is the Lord of Leftovers, the Earl of Duke. I work in the feast hall, where we have wine, women, song and men without pants – if that’s your fancy.”

I smiled at the image – even though that’s none of his business. As I walked from person to heavily costumed person, I kept asking the same question – and getting the same answer.

Regardless of whether I was talking to a Spaniard, a duo of town heralds or the King of Spain himself, most men (and ladies) claimed to be the most fascinating in Fairhaven.

And so it went.

It actually took about half a dozen interviews before I got a different response. Some said Adam Crack, a charismatic – and intricately tattooed – performer who holds nine Guiness World Records with his whip.

Some said the ladies of “Hey, Nunnie Nunnie,” who offer up Catholic-flavored comedy.

And some, like a random Russian chap I ran into, didn’t really answer my question at all.

“Oh, hold on one just one second,” he said, brushing me off. “I have to eat children.”

Oh, I hate when that happens.

But after all this, one name did come up more than once. Cardinal Guido. Not only did people tell me his name, but I saw his face everywhere. It was on a poster, done in the style of that iconic, red-and-blue image of Barack Obama from 2008. It did not, however, say “Hope.” It said “Pope.” Guido, you see, was running what would ultimately be an unsuccessful bid for pontiff.  

The people of the town were right. This was all very interesting. But none of it would matter if I couldn’t find him, and even though he was dressed in all Cardinal red, it wasn’t looking good. My travels took me to a rousing jousting match. From there, I hit up a performance of a wild band of Scots called Tartanic. I even enlisted the help of a kindly Robin Hood, who informed me the cardinal has a little black mustache and should be easy to spot.

“You’ll know, he looks like a guido,” the famed outlaw said.

Before I knew it, it had been hours. But no Guido. Nowhere.

With the cold and damp settling in, I decided to head home. I told myself all would be fine, I’d think of something. I started to build this story in my head, Guido-free.

I was about to step into the dusty parking lot, when I heard someone calling down to me from the gates above. Guess who.

Yeah, it was Cardinal Guido Consigliare, who’s really named Jeremy Martin, though nobody calls him that. Turned out, he’d been looking for me, too . It felt serendipitous to me, but he didn’t seem fazed. After all, he’s been working at the fair 18 years.

“Yes, half of my natural life, I have been here,” he said, with an Italian flair.

In real life, Guido works at a blood bank – and he admits that when he’s not at the fair, he’s kind of a hermit. But it’s different out in the desert. He estimated he sees maybe 20,000 people – every day.

“And I’m trying to greet and chat up and make every one of them laugh,” he said.

At the festival, he creates a perfect id, and then happily sets it free. With a chuckle, he described how he helps people “find” Jesus – using a “Where’s Waldo” book and a shell game. The point, he explained, is to make people happy.

“To make a little bit of joy and a little bit of wonder in someone’s life, seeing children just lose themselves in a moment of just pure fun, and then running and playing. Seeing adults willing to just laugh openly with a stranger,” he said. “Those kind of moments within the festival make it all worth it.”         

Before he melted into the crowd again, Cardinal Guido told me there’s a trick to all this. In his churchy alter ego, he must be constantly spontaneous, joking with patrons but also listening and responding to them. Like with most things in real life, he has to both give and take.

“And if you find that perfect balance where you can do both, you become almost an avatar of the entire party – you are the life of the party, so to be speak. That’s kind of how it goes,” he said, before pausing and smiling. “Wow, this is profound. I didn’t realize this would be as deep as it is.”

Me neither, Guido. Me neither.