Hear ye, hear ye — an official proclamation has come down from on high: Dinner theatre stunt extravaganza Medieval Times now has a woman in charge, and it is big effing news. This marks the first time in Medieval Times’ 35-year history that a Queen has played the lead role, rather than a King, and, well… the (absolutely true) jokes right themselves: Medieval Times is officially more progressive than where we actually are as a society right now.
The Queen is Doña Maria Isabella, who, according to the new storyline, has ascended to the throne following the death of her father. She is benevolent, but firm, and she will not put up with any sass from her knights or subjects. Her show premiered at Medieval Times’ Dallas location back in October; it’s now playing at the Chicago location, as well, and presumably the other seven U.S. locations will follow suit soon (if they haven’t already).
Medieval Times saw its beginnings in Spain in the 1960s. Creator Jose Montaner had been running a successful barbecue restaurant on his farm on the island of Majorca; however, according to a Chicago Tribune piece from 1991, the arrival of a second barbecue restaurant — that is, a competitor — prompted Montaner to brainstorm ways to stay ahead of the game. After overhearing some customers from the UK talk about medieval fairs, he thought up the idea that would become Medieval Times: An indoor dinner theatre show featuring knights, horses, duels, and all the other trappings and tropes of medieval fact and fiction humans already like to consume in our media. Patrons, he figured, would watch the show while eating his barbecue.
In the 1980s — after Montaner’s shows in Majorca and Benidorm had been running for several years — plans began to form geared towards bringing Medieval Times to the United States. The first U.S. location opened in Kissimmee, Fla. in 1983; a second followed in Buena Park, Calif. in 1986; and a third opened in Lyndhurst, NJ in 1990. According to Mental Floss, the original Kissimmee location’s attendance rose from 1830,000 during its second year of operation to a whopping 600,000 by 1993 — and although there are still only nine Medieval Times locations throughout the United States, their popularity abounds. (These days, the home office is located in Irving, Texas.)
Medieval Times’ shows are updated every four years, according to the Tampa Bay Times, although the changes typically aren’t major; as Mental Floss observes, “The narrative remains largely the same: A king will read birthday notices or offer retirement congratulations to attending parties. He’s then blackmailed by the Herald of the North, who insists on compliance or the King’s daughter will be held hostage. Six knights duel; a falcon flies over the crowd. At the climax, the winning knight plucks a female patron from the crowd and anoints her the Queen.”
This time, though? The changes are big. Written and directed by Leigh Cordner, who has performed in every single one of the male roles during his decades-long tenure with the show, put in substantial time rewriting the script in order to, as the Chicago Tribune puts it, “diverge from storylines where women have to marry to gain validation but can command authority on their own.” The new show was a direct result of all the feedback Cordner has received over the years from audience members who wanted to see a woman in the lead.
And boy, is she a fantastic leader. Said Alyssa O’Donnell, one of the actors who plays the Queen at Medieval Times’ Chicago location, to CBC Radio’s As It Happens, “She is the sole ruler of the realm. She is not beholden to anyone and she rules the way she sees fit. She tries to rule with fairness and honesty and justice, but she is in charge, which is very exciting.” Meanwhile, Monet Lerner, one of the Dallas Queens, told D Magazine, “Doña Maria Isabella is very kind, but she’s also not gonna let anybody put her down just because she’s a woman. There’s a couple of times when the men of the realm get a little feisty, and she has to come in and be like, ‘You know what? The choice isn’t yours, it’s mine — because I have the blood of kings in my blood.’”
(I’m trying really hard not to make a Highlander joke right now, but, well…)
(No, I’m not.)
Lerner also noted that the goal of the show’s tournament isn’t to find the Queen a husband. “It’s kind of funny, because we call that out in the show as well,” she said to D Magazine. “It’s like, ‘This is not about royal matchmaking, Cedric.’ You know? We’re not doing that. It’s about finding a new champion of the realm.” Hear, hear!
As for how the show is landing with its audiences? Long story short, it’s a hit — particularly with kids. The Chicago Tribune spoke to a number of kids of all genders who attended the new show with their families, and they had things to say like, “I like the queen better. A queen can do the same thing a king can do” and “I love it, it’s awesome,” One of them — an 11-year-old — even called it “revolutionary.”
Never let it be said that kids don’t understand gender dynamics. They absolutely do, and they absolutely get feminism.
Grownups note how important it is, too. Said Juan Serrano, the father of the 11-year-old boy who called the show “revolutionary,” told the Chicago Tribune, “[It’s] important for the boys to appreciate that women can hold [the] same roles as men”; meanwhile, Chicago Queen Alyssa O’Donnell said on As It Happens, “I had a grandmother come up to me the other day saying, ‘It’s so wonderful seeing a strong woman up there on the throne and having this to share with my grandchildren.’”
It’s clear that people are so ready for this change — and have been for quite some time.
The same is true of our culture at large.
Here’s hoping the rest of our society can catch up to where Medieval Times is right now soon. Because if there’s ever been a sign that it’s long overdue, it’s the fact that a medieval-themed fantasy dinner theatre show is in a better spot than our actual world.