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Death on Two Legs

Fluid Movement Interprets Poe's Plague Tale

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Electric Boogaloo: Fluid Movement?s Melissa Martens and Brandon Welch practice for their Poe performance.

By Eileen Murphy | Posted 10/27/1999

Poe on Wheels

Fluid Movement

Death rides a skateboard. That might not be everyone's vision of the Grim Reaper, but it's one shared by Melissa Martens and the 20 to 25 other members of Fluid Movement. In July, the performing-arts group presented Water Shorts, a water ballet based on the stages of life, complete with original music and splashy dance numbers (Dance, 7/28). For Halloween weekend, the group takes on the Seven Deadly Sins in a "rolling interpretation" of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death." The 40-minute show uses 20 performers, all on roller or in-line skates except for Death (that skateboard), plus a few dogs, disco music, and some interesting and intricate props.

Like the summer's water ballet, Poe on Wheels combines the group's urge to perform with an interest in urban revitalization. The performance space is the roundabout in front of the Pulaski Monument in Patterson Park. Most of the performers live in East Baltimore, and the production draws on logistical support from the Friends of Patterson Park.

The show is the brainchild of Martens, who helped produce Water Shorts. Her work on that production was all offstage, but she was the first to lace up her skates for the Poe show.

"I roller skated in the basement when I was a kid. I had the satin jacket, I was into the music. I loved movies like Xanadu," Martens says. "When I worked on the water ballet last summer, I realized I was in the company of like-minded people."

Some of those like-minded people didn't even own skates; a couple had never skated at all. According to Martens, such inexperience is in keeping with Fluid Movement's philosophy, which values passion over prowess: "We have people in the group who are interested in dance or theater. It doesn't matter if you're good at those things, just that you have an interest."

Enthusiasm may draw performers to the group, but they need discipline to stay in the show. By the third week of rehearsals, all of Martens' performers could skate well enough to perform publicly, although they still experience the occasional fall or out-of-control roll as they practice. The group boasts a wide range of body shapes and performing skills; besides discipline, the constant is a collaborative spirit. As with the water ballet, Poe on Wheels started with a framework—in this case, the Poe story—and the performers and support staff work together to fill it out. Martens decided on the seven deadly sins as an organizing theme, which she uses symbolically throughout the story.

During rehearsals, Martens calls out the name of a scene, and the performers gather and test different approaches. The black-clad, satin-cape-wearing skaters ham it up as they act out the various sins. They practice disco-style synchronized numbers and work on square-dance-style moves. They even manage to use some water-ballet moves, such as the "rotating starfish." Friends on the sidelines offer critiques, and somehow each scene evolves with little conflict and even less ego.

The end result is a friendly and, at times, funny version of Poe's existential horror story, set in plague-ravaged Europe. In "The Masque of the Red Death," a group of decadent, wealthy people, as yet untouched by the plague, gather for a masquerade ball to celebrate their good fortune. In the end, of course, an uninvited guest spoils their fun. Martens and her crew highlight the story's social criticism while playing some scenes for laughs. The curious mixture is a hallmark of Fluid Movement productions, which Martens characterizes as "taking something serious and juxtaposing it with a silly medium."

Fluid Movement performs Poe on Wheels Oct. 30 and 31 at 7 P.M., Patterson Park, Eastern and Linwood avenues, (410) 276-3676, $2 donation requested.

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