Valarie Perez Schere, tight yellow shorts over her black bathing suit, tattoos exposed and sunglasses perched on her head, paces poolside in Patterson Park, gesturing and throwing out directions to her cast like a hyped-up Martin Scorsese.
The group listens as Schere, a redheaded fireball, describes the scene they're about to rehearse. Their decadent celebration interrupted by the approach of Octavian and his Roman army, the Egyptians jump in the pool, ready for battle. Mass carnage ensues before Mark Antony, believing his beloved Cleopatra is dead, offs himself dramatically with a sword.
"Yeah? Dig it?" Schere asks the swimsuit-wearing actors around her. "Do you guys want to hear the music before we do this?"
She flicks on the boombox and a strange Egyptian-techno hybrid wafts out. Cleopatra, a young African-American woman with braided hair, a gauzy sarong and royal blue eyeshadow, waits regally on the sidelines. The Egyptians lounge at one end of the pool. At the other, inner tube-wearing, robotic Romans teeter stiff-legged into the shallow end.
A motley assemblage of shapes and sizes, the performers are not your average group of svelte swimmers. But then "Cleopatra: Life on the Nile" isn't your average synchronized swimming performance.
Opening tonight and running through Saturday at Patterson Park Pool in southeast Baltimore, "Cleopatra" is the latest production from Baltimore community arts group Fluid Movement. Among its other credits: a roller-skating interpretation of Poe's "Masque of the Red Death," an abridged version of Bizet's Carmen featuring hot-dog puppets, and, at last weekend's Artscape festival in Baltimore, "Hoe-Down in Hades," a square-dancing take on the Greek tale of Orpheus.
But chlorinated water is in Fluid Movement's blood. The group made its first big splash last summer with an offbeat synchronized swimming performance in Patterson Park called "Water Shorts" and the oddball ideas have been flowing like a tap ever since.
Like the show planned for the Jewish Museum of Maryland this fall to coincide with its ongoing exhibit of family treasures. A re-creation of great moments in Jewish and Yiddish theater, "Tchotchke Follies" will feature a cast made up of salt and pepper shakers.
Melissa Martens, curator of Jewish Museum of Maryland and, with Schere, one of Fluid Movement's founding members, says the group finds inspiration anywhere and everywhere. "Sometimes we know the story we want to tell, sometimes we just know the medium we want to perform in, such as swimming or skating," says Martens, 30. "We get inspired by any number of things."
The group's mission, Martens says, is to introduce audiences to complex stories in a way that makes the esoteric more accessible.
"We try to pick things that have familiarity and resonance with the audience, but by juxtaposing it with something comical or unexpected, it helps to bring it to life in a new way," she says.
Keri Burneston, the 25-year-old driving force behind this kitschy pairing of classical themes and pop culture, founded Fluid Movement out of a dissatisfaction with the traditional ways she saw art being presented.
A few years ago, Burneston, now on staff at Living Classrooms Foundation, was studying painting and drawing at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Dabbling in conceptual installations and video work, she was feeling increasingly self-indulgent. Burneston grew up in a working-class family and had always used her dad as a barometer to gauge the accessibility of her art. He wasn't coming to see her work, and she started thinking she was on the wrong track.
"I felt like a lot of people I was in school with and the art world in general expected the audience to figure out what they were doing," Burneston says. "I felt like it was my responsibility to help people understand what I was trying to say."
Ideas began to germinate, and Burneston decided to stage a puppet show. Unfamiliar with opera, she began listening to opera recordings until she found something she recognized: Carmen. Next was the medium. She figured the pairing of the all-American hot dog with European culture could only yield good results.
The franks were carved with mouths and accessorized with tiny swords and earrings, but the Vienna sausages originally used for the show's cherubs were quickly traded in for firmer, less odorous tofu wieners.
"Coming out of the jelly, the sucking sound they make is just disgusting," she says. "Tofu dogs hold their shape better."
After "Carmen: The Hog Dog Opera," Burneston set her sights on a water ballet. As a child, she'd play mermaid with her friends each summer, doing synchronized flips and practicing moves. She dreamed of being a synchronized swimmer or a movie star. Then in college, Burneston first saw an Esther Williams film and found a heroine in the 1940s swimming star.
"She's smiling and she's in these costumes - it's so campy and ridiculous," says Burneston, whose light pink and green glittery sunglasses look like something Williams might have worn. "It's just a spectacle. That's where my interest lies."
In the process of doing "Water Shorts," Burneston met Schere and Martens, who shared her nostalgia for Williams' retro glamour. With Schere's background in theater, Martens' dance training and Burneston's exposure to visual arts, they made a well-rounded trio.
The three also shared another goal: creating performances that are polished but unpretentious. Toward that end, there are no auditions for Fluid Movement's shows, and anyone who wants to be involved is welcome. For "Poe on Wheels," performed in Patterson Park last Halloween, the cast included a man who could hardly stand on skates. The solution? Cast him as the town drunk.
"We actually don't even want people who have a lot of theater training," Burneston says. "We like the sort of homemade quality of the shows that we do."
Setting is also important, and Burneston believes staging shows outdoors creates a neutral ground where expectations about traditional theater can be cast aside. "It's not a warehouse, it's not a gallery, it's not a theater," she says. "I think if people don't have any expectations or any preconceptions, it's easier for them to just go to it out of a genuine curiosity."
So far, the approach seems to have worked. Megan Hamilton, program director for Fells Point Creative Alliance and one of the sponsors of this weekend's show, says the group's strength lies in its ability to create performances that include the community on many levels. Cleopatra includes neighborhood children and senior citizens, she points out, and Schere's mother and husband are both in the show.
"They have a really good knack for creating these community-based performances, which is not an easy thing to do," Hamilton says. "You really need to check your ego at the door and be able to work with a really diverse group of folks, and you need to demystify and make non-threatening something that threatens a lot of people."
In the process of making theater a little less threatening, the group may also be improving the image of Patterson Park. Schere says the perception of inner-city parks as dangerous and crime-ridden is something cities around the country have grappled with. Staging events in the park, she says, gets the community involved and helps bolster a rekindled pride in the neighborhood.
"It helps people reclaim the neighborhood, and it sends a message to the rest of the city that fun, exciting things happen here," says Schere, who out of the water is marketing director for Patterson Park Community Development Corporation.
Burneston says getting people involved in the neighborhood may be the most important function of Fluid Movement.
"In a way, the performance is just the culmination of the process," she says. "It's about getting neighbors together and collaborating with them and interacting with them and just seeing what happens."
Will Backstrom, who works for the Patterson Park Neighborhoods Initiative, a nonprofit housing organization, says last summer's water ballet helped bring together a variety of neighborhood groups. Since then, he says, the momentum has grown. A few hundred people turned out for "Poe on Wheels," then a community skate began at the park's ice rink on Tuesday nights. In June, hundreds of cyclists participated in a bike jam that included races, a decorating contest and an antique bike show.
A high point came on New Year's, when the park was lit up with handmade wooden letters reading "Happy 2000 Hon," and a neighborhood man played "Auld Lang Syne" on his saxophone.
"One lady who's lived here for at least 40 years said, 'This has been a great year for the park,'" Backstrom says. Around him, as dusk sets in the park, basketball players pack the courts, strollers walk leisurely along paths and children clamber over playground equipment.
"Residents who live here," Backstrom says, "feel things are starting to happen again."
'Cleopatra: Life on the Nile'
Where: Patterson Park Pool, off Pratt and Linwood streets
When: 6:30 p.m. today, tomorrow and Sunday, with a matinee Saturday at 4 p.m. (In the event of heavy rain, tickets may be exchanged for other performances or a rain date show scheduled for July 31 at 6:30 p.m.)
Tickets: $5 each, available at Margaret's Cafe in Fells Point, Simon's Pub in Butchers Hill, DiPasquales in Highlandtown and Helen's Garden Restaurant in Canton. ("Tiki Torches at Twilight," a performance and poolside party benefit for Fells Point Creative Alliance, will take place Saturday evening. Tickets are $55 each.)