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‘Ren Faire’ review: The future of a Renaissance festival resembles a low-rent version of ‘Succession’

By Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune
Published: June 9, 2024, 6:05am

The greatest joke of HBO’s “Succession” was the inability of aging fictional CEO Logan Roy to name his replacement. Talk about the ultimate failure! But there are egomaniacal men who will go to their graves before envisioning a world that exists without them. That’s the animating through line in the three-part HBO documentary “Ren Faire” (which premiered last week and concludes Sunday) about the tenuous future of the Texas Renaissance Festival.

A real-life, downmarket version of “Succession,” it offers a claustrophobic portrait of the festival’s eccentric and off-putting founder George Coulam and the three subordinates — two men and a woman, tidily echoing “Succession’s” Kendall, Roman and Shiv — whose sweaty hopes and dreams of Ren faire domination are dependent on Coulam’s mercurial moods. Who will wrest control from the old man, if anyone?

Director Lance Oppenheim (whose credits include the recent Hulu documentary “Spermworld”) takes a stylized approach, giving the documentary an untrustworthy and manipulated feel that suggests a number of moments were staged. But it also seems likely that Coulam is too peculiar and stubborn — too lacking in self-awareness — to be anyone other than who he is, whether a camera is there or not.

Founded 50 years ago, tens of thousands of people attend the fest on any given day. Located an hour outside of Houston, it’s a moneymaker. But Coulam is ready to retire and he’s looking to sell the whole shebang for $60 million. Whether that happens is another matter.

Coulam is all business when it comes to the fest, but does he have any emotional investment? Unclear. He doesn’t seem to find any delight or whimsy in this artificial world he’s created.

Not so for general manager Jeff Baldwin, who has a background in theater and a childlike and dreamy outlook. He says things like “George is Willy Wonka,” then later compares his boss to King Lear. Heading up a massive kettle corn operation at the fest is Louie Migliaccio, a fast-talking shark who chugs Red Bull as if his life depends on it. His family has money and he’s hoping they will buy the fest. Then there’s Darla Smith, who once ran an elephant attraction before becoming a vendor coordinator. Her ambitions are never articulated but she seems competent, if uninspiring. They each battle for Coulam’s favor and are subject to his rebukes, depending upon who is in his line of fire. Everyone is stressed. Everyone is paranoid. Everyone drives a truck or an SUV.

Though Coulam modeled himself on Walt Disney, apparently he’s done with all that. Now in his mid-80s, “I want to do art and chase ladies.” Seemingly unprompted, he tells director Oppenheim about his medical regimen: “I have to take Viagra and Cialis and I have to have a shot of testosterone once a week” — he pronounces it testoserahn. An assistant nearby nods expressionless. “If you get a shot every week, you can have an erection until you die. And that’s my goal.” He’s also hired someone to help him navigate “sugar daddy sites” and says he’s looking for “a nice, thin lady between 30 and 50 years old.” But the women he matches with are in their 20s. The first thing he asks is if their breasts are natural. “I want someone to love me and take care of me,” he says, with no concept that this imaginary woman might want things out of a relationship as well. He’s too controlling and too rigid to consider that.

But his taste is questionable across the board. “Ugly art is not art,” he says. His home — with its garish, maximalist interiors — is an ironic testament to this. He’s intense and self-absorbed, so it doesn’t stretch the imagination that he agreed to do this documentary. Why anyone else did remains a mystery.


2.5 stars (out of 4)

Rating: TV-14

How to watch: All three parts streaming on Max