The white Karmann Ghia screeches to the curb on a rainy Monday night. Laure Drogoul --es out, late as usual, her vinyl go-go boots clacking against the asphalt.
It's not her feet you notice first, though; it's her head. Yards of silver and gold fabric have been draped around it like a turban and fastened with a fake spider hatpin. But that's just part of the visual show-and-tell: She's also wearing a sleeveless sequin gown, rabbit's head pendant (yes, it's real) and more black eyeliner than Tammy Faye Bakker.
Consider them all the wonders of Laure (pronounced Laura) Drogoul. As the co-founder and hostess of the 14Karat Cabaret, the funky performance art venue in the basement of Maryland Art Place, it's her job to dress the part of avant-garde diva trapped in a polyester town.
After all, this is a woman who has jackhammered nude and jumped rope in cement shoes for the sake of art. Who would
expect her to show up in a simple double knit?
Words of advice from Charlotte Cohen, program director for Maryland Art Place, ring in your ears: "When you first meet Laure, you have to be open-minded, especially if you're not used to dealing with a creative force like that."
What she declined to add is that this 32-year-old performer and sculptor, who talks with a faux French accent and collects empty toothpaste tubes, has a method to her madcapness.
Sitting on a folding chair in the dimly lit cabaret, cigarette stubs still in ashtrays from last week's show, Ms. Drogoul shares her life's ambition.
L "I'm motivated," she says proudly, "to be a living cartoon."
But while she faces the world with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek, the contribution she's making to Baltimore's alternative arts scene is serious stuff. Known for her quirky taste and adroit organizational skills, she's emerging as a major player among progres-sive artists, showcasing experimental acts and fighting for an expanded definition of what's considered art in a conservative town.
"Her work has been an exhilarating breath of fresh air into this city," says Philip Arnoult, artistic director of the Theatre Project. "She's really a shimmering persona."
At the cabaret, nearly anything goes. In the two years since she and fellow artist John Henley founded 14Karat, they've attracted some national acts, including controversial porn star-turned-performance artist Annie Sprinkle. During another recent show, an artist poured a bucket of water over an audience member's head. Another time, a paper airplane fight ++ broke out between the audience and act.
"When I moved here [in 1980] there was no type of performance venue that was accessible," she says. "This is a very atmospheric performance space. It's a little bit of theater that happens every other weekend."
One of her own favorite skits is a Julia Childs-style cooking demonstration with power tools. During it, she beats eggs with a jackhammer and chain saws butter. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that she lives above a hardware store on Howard Street's Antique Row, but talk of saws and bulldozers and forklifts figures prominently in conversation.
"For modern living you must be very industrial strength," she explains.
It's tough to find something Ms. Drogoul considers off limits. Jackhammering nude during a videotaped performance art piece wasn't. Neither was constructing a floating boat dress-cum-oars and launching herself in it in the harbor.
In fact, Ms. Drogoul is hardpressed to describe the wildest thing she's ever done. She scrunches up her face in concentration and finally decides on this: traveling with a friend from New Jersey to Chicago in a Renault with no front windshield.
"It started to snow, and we had to turn the windshield wipers on because we were afraid the cops would see us," she says.
Friend and fellow performer Madenney Carlisle sums her up this way: "She unpredictable. That's part of her charm. I love how she'll have this strong, strict ostentatious attitude. Then she'll act like a 6-year-old girl."
There is one thing friends and associates would change about her, though: her chronic lateness.
"When we go out together and she says she'll pick me up at 9, that means 2 o'clock," says Mr. Carlisle.
Ms. Drogoul explains it away: "I'm a proud member of the cult of tardyism."
But if she acts supremely self confident, inside she feels otherwise. In fact, she often suffers from stage fright. "I get serious lockjaw," she says. "Half the time it's like family here, so you're very comfortable. But when you have a big show and an absolute full house, it's quite frightening."
Amid the sequins and turbans, there is another side to Ms. Drogoul: a serious one. For the last six years, she's taught sculpture and design at York College of Pennsylvania. During class, she makes a point of leaving the jackhammers and eggs at home.