At The Colossal Stone Castle by Dan Zeff
Schaumberg –For more than 25 years, drivers passing the Roselle Road ramp on I 90 at Schaumberg likely were startled by the sight of a colossal stone medieval castle just off the expressway. It’s not a Brigadoon-type appearance from an earlier time. It’s the home of one of the last of the area dinner theaters, dedicated to giving visitors a colorful and high decibel dose of entertainment King Arthur style.
The show is called “Medieval Times” and it is a canny mix of jousting, equestrian exhibitions, and fighting as imagined at a European royal court in the Middle Ages. The spectators not only watch men dressed as medieval knights demonstrate horsemanship as well as engage in lethal combat, the patrons get to dine on a meal centering on a gigantic piece of broiled chicken.
The production takes place within the castle in a large arena that resembles an oblong hockey rink, except that the floor is covered with sand instead of a sheet of ice. The spectators observe the proceedings from rows of seats that enclose the performing area. The arena seats 1,500 and even at a less than sellout, spectators can make quite a cheering tumult once the swords start flashing.
All the action takes place in the sand pit except for a balcony at one end occupied by a young queen (country unidentified), who presides over the tournament of knights and engages in dialogue with a nobleman who I gather is her chief of staff. The sound system is ample as far as volume is concerned but I had problems with intelligibility. I think there is a story of sorts that relates to the displays by the knights and their horses but I couldn’t quite nail what all the shouting was about.
A show press release does proudly announce that for the first time since 2012,“Medieval Times” has a new storyline in which a queen rules as sole ruler of the land and not a king. The queen inherited the throne from her father, the first female to hold the reins of government, not a necessarily a probability in the Middle Ages but very much a sign of diversity in our new millennium.
The show, which goes a bit under two hours, runs without an intermission. The meal is served to patrons in their seats and without silverware. Forewarned, we brought plastics knives and forks and were happy we did so. People who wanted to dine in the medieval fingers only manner are free to do so. Beverages come with the meal.
A knight on horseback serves as the master of ceremonies, like a circus ringmaster. The entertainment starts out with riding exhibitions featuring six beautiful and well-trained horses and their royal riders. After dinner is served, the intensity picks up with the jousting involving sparking swords and swinging maces and shattering lances and semi-protective shields. The action grows increasingly heated with six color-coded knights, each representing a different section of the audience, start whaling away at each other until only one man is left standing.
It’s obvious that the dueling is carefully choreographed, and it is just as obvious that the fighting is still extremely dangerous and physically demanding. The six men not only know their way around a dangerous sword or mace, they are in exceptionally fit condition. The press release notes that the combatants train and rehearse for three months. These are not actors looking to make a quick dollar between theater auditions. They are talented pros at what they do and their energy level to the very end is remarkable.
While the fighting is obviously staged, that did not prevent many of the spectators from taking very emotional sides in the outcome of the assorted combats. The youngsters in the audience were especially involved in rooting for their champion, while many waved their battery operated plastic swords in the spirit of the occasion. There is no playbill listing the names of the performers, though the press kit does name two women who alternate as the queen. My show had Allyssa O’Donnell (who alternates with Sara Schubring), and she was fine in a role that candidly offers few opportunities for high-end acting.
“Medieval Times” is a family show and the management keeps the youngsters occupied before the show begins with activities of a medieval tournament nature. The kids may even get the chance to hear their names announced over the amplification system, and selfies and group portraits were taken in great abundance before the show began.
While there are amply opportunities to spend money on concessions and souvenirs, the evening can be enjoyed for the single ticket price. And there is a vast free parking lot, a considerable balm for drivers who pay big bucks to park at the Allstate Arena or the United Center.
The quality of a family show like “Medieval Times” can be judged on how much the kids throw themselves into the proceedings. At my performance, the involvement between youthful viewers and the knights and their horses was continuously exuberant.
There are nine “Medieval Times” shows (the Schaumberg edition opened in 1991) throughout the United States and Canada and the producers have hit upon an undeniably successful formula that provides excitement for the youngsters without boring or bankrupting the adults.
“Medieval Times” is playing an open run at the Medieval Castle, 2001 North Roselle Road in Schaumberg. Performances times vary. Tickets are $61.95 to $83.95. Call (847) 882-1496 or visit www.medievaltimes.com/chicago.