(This was my fifth Epic Day in Cotati. You can read about the previous four here.)
(And then read parts of it in the Hungarian and the English verse translation as well, just for good measure.)
Telling Orlando Furioso is like trying to do an oral performance of the first three books of Game of Thrones (ASOIAF) from memory. There are dozens of storylines and characters, and each canto (chapter) jumps between them, leaving our heroes between life and death in the most inopportune moments (Ariosto was an early master of the cliffhanger). On top of that, the story is full of side quests and inserted tales that have nothing to do with the main plot, but heroes keep getting sidetracked anyway, so it is often hard to tell what is going to be relevant later, and what is merely embellishment (not that embellishment is not great - one of those side quests involves a knight who has an early prototype of a gun, and he wreaks havoc on the battlefield until Orlando takes him down). Since we only had 17 storytellers and one day to do the whole thing, some parts needed to be edited out. We still ended up with 31 cantos told in almost exactly 5 hours (not counting the breaks).
So, why take on telling something incredibly complex and difficult like Orlando Furioso?
Because it's awesome, that's why.
The story takes place in the time of Charlemagne, but was written at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries. Ariosto has a tongue-in-cheek attitude towards romances of chivalry, and he does his best to mix adventures and drama with a healthy dose of humor, and a whole lot of magic. In addition, he had a very enlightened take on the role of women in the story. There is a whole lineup of strong, smart, independent women, and every once in a while the narrator himself goes on mini-rants about how women should be allowed to have the same sexual freedom as men, and how a female knight should not be judged based on her beauty, etc. It is a pretty darn feminist story, in many ways. And in other ways, it is ridiculously entertaining.
The story in a nutshell: Charlemagne and his Christian knights are at war with Agramant, King of Africa, and his Saracen army. Charlemagne is somewhat disadvantaged because his best knights have gone off on various quests; a bunch of them (as well as some of the Saracen champions) have fallen in love with Angelica, Princess of Cathay, and they spend their time chasing her up and down the continent. Angelica, not having a fancy for any of them, gets away in various smart ways, until she finds a guy she actually likes. When Orlando (one of the lovestruck puppies) finds out she has been married, he loses his wits and goes berserk, rampaging all over Europe and Africa. Astolfo, Prince of England, and owner of the above mentioned hippogriff, is dispatched to the Moon to recover Orlando's wits (because all things lost can be found on the Moon). Meanwhile we also have Bradamante, the legendary and mighty female knight, and her beloved Ruggiero, a champion of the Saracen army. They are destined for each other, but keep missing each other due to various circumstances, even though half the cast is working on getting them together (including the sorceress Melissa, the Original Fangirl). Eventually things work out for more or less everyone, but not before a whole lot of elaborate (and sometimes convoluted) adventures happen.
I had two favorite people in this story: Astofo, who really just wants to ride a flying horse and see the world, and Marfisa. Marfisa is Ruggiero's long-lost twin sister, who grew up to be a female knight on the Saracen side. She is, by all intents and purposes, a Muslim female warrior of color, and she does a whole lot of epic things in this story. She is also somewhat queered - at one point she volunteers to "pleasure ten women" as part of a challenge, and another time Ariosto notes that she had "no interest in romance or marriage." She becomes a friend and fierce protector of Bradamante, her eventual sister-in-law, and the two ladies do some truly mighty things together.
As for telling the story: It was definitely an adventure. Because of the editing process, and some people only reading their parts of the story, we occasionally had gaps in the plot that needed to be filled in on the fly. It became a communal game, a truly collaborative form of storytelling: When someone forgot something, someone else picked up the tale and filled in the blanks; when someone got lost, we discussed what we missed over the salad bar during the breaks. I originally picked canto 34 (Astolfo's trip to the Moon), but then also took on the last 4 cantos, volunteering to wrap up the various storylines in the end. After some people stepped back, and some things got edited out, I ended up with the last 7 cantos. In the end, it took about 45 minutes for me to wrap everything up with a neat little bow. It was a great experience, and I really enjoyed doing the whole "Remember this guy? Whatever happened to him?..." bit.
This, sadly, might have been my last Epic Day for a while (at least in California). The silver lining on that sad fact is that it was amazing. I am happy that I got to immerse myself in Ariosto's magical world in the company of some truly great storytellers. I hope I'll get to do it again sometime.