Mark Behme, who paints pictures of people, took his place on stage as a rock lobster. He had worked on this costume since before last year's Beaux Arts Masquerade Ball at the Corcoran School of Art -- where he appeared as a lizard. Michelangelo sculpted the Pieta in St. Peter's in less time.

Behme's work received its just reward last night under the hot white lights on the judging platform at this year's ball: applause, shrieks, whistles, catcalls -- and the first-prize trip to Jamaica.

"You've gotta see this," said architect Rembert Donelson, attired as Greed -- wearing his grandmother's elaborate brocade and lace draperies sewn into a tunic -- and traveling in the company of Lust, Vanity, Envy and the Perfect Foil.

Behme, 20, stepped off the platform into the crowd and let people get a close look at the gleaming, red-enameled, papier-mache lobster claws, and above the lobster head, two sweeping plastic antennae and little red lightbulbs. Down his torso more red papier-mache. Was it hot, someone wanted to know. He nodded and said, "anything for art, you know."

And anything for a costume -- the motto of the Corcoran, which sold 1,300 tickets from $10 to $200 to this night of masked revelry, with all the proceeds going to its School of Art. The most unusually attired came with their own personal attendants to pin, paper clip and lead them through.

There was Pat Helsing rolling her friend Leslie Binswanger, a fourth-year Corcoran student, around the gallery. Binswanger, who appeared in a huge yellow and orange clam shell on wheels, was the woman to beat in the costume competitions, everyone thought.

She did, in fact, win last year and went off to Paris as her prize. Last night, before the judges, she opened her 6-foot-by-6-foot clam to reveal herself as Botticelli's "Birth of Venus," strikingly similar to the painting with her pale leotard, pale face makeup and yards of hair.

But who said peculiarity was the rule of the evening? Not Andy Warhol, New York artist, who came in to be one of the costume judges. "I'm going to vote for the person who looks the most normal," said Warhol at the preball buffet dinner at the Wax Museum in Southwest Washington. It was one of many dinners held around the city, the others at embassies. "It's a time of normalcy -- not imagination."

Warhol swept in surrounded by an entourage that included New Yorker Jane Holzer and Washingtonian Dolly Fox. He also brought his Sony Walkabout, lightweight earphones bursting with the sound of Leontyne Price singing a Richard Strauss opera, an odd complement to the live performance by the Federal Jazz Commission and the Catfish Hodge Band. Around his neck was a Minox camera, which he periodically held up and absent-mindedly took flash pictures with. "I like to feel busy," he said about the camera. "I drop these a lot. I have about 20 Minoxes." And, incidentally, his 15 minutes of fame are up. "Long ago," he said with a smile.

Among these very-costumed were the very-famous-but-not-so-costumed. At around 11, Alexander Godunov, American Ballet Theatre star, arrived in leather jacket and jeans after his performance at the Kennedy Center. "I'm in love," swooned one woman upon seeing the blond dancer.

And Zbigniew Brzezinski was the center of attention in the room where one local photo company was taking pictures of guests against the background of smoke. ("Foto Fantasy.") Brzezinski appraised the photos of himself, his sister-in-law and niece. "I like this one," he said pointing. "Shows me thinking about the new administration." He was dressed in black tie but grabbed a green half-face mask, asking, "Am I recognizable?"

"I think you did a great job," said attorney Steve Troese, patting Brzezinski on the shoulder.

"Well thank you," said Brzezinski. "That makes my evening."

Ostensibly, the theme was the American dream. Many did not adhere to it, but among those who did were Judy Habeggar and Sandra Boettcher, in plastic bags with nylon over their faces. "We are Devo," said Habegger, referring to the New Wave band.

"This is what the American dream has almost come to," said Boettcher. "Plastic and metal."

And then there was Kevin Chaffee, editor of City Life magazine, dressed as a sheik. "It's the American dream," he said.

Other costume prize winners were A. J. Strasser, a first-year Corcoran student, who won for his unicorn mask; Kate Jones, another Corcoran student, who came as Man Ray's camera; Ellen Cohen, who dressed as a stretched dollar; and Angelo and Janice Bonita, and Ralph and Vera Deckelbaum, who came as the crew from the Wizard of Oz.