"I'm a rat catcher," says redheaded and disquietingly affable Emrys Fleet, various nastinesses dangling from his bushy beard like low-grade fish lure. His costume is air-conditioned here and there ("and more so every week," he adds proudly). Flecks of dried blood and swatches of grime punctuate a buffoon face that is dotted like a stenographer's notebook. Oh, the stories it could tell.

"I don't grovel," he points out testily. "Beggars . . ." the word spills out of his mouth like something he bit into by accident, "beggars grovel. Please. I catch rats."

He cuddles a piece of brown fluff called Pesky the Rat and confesses. "I'm a disgusting slime bag, but I don't grovel. I'm a rat catcher," he repeats. "I work here."

"I walk on beggars," says Robert Dudley, the imperious Earl of Leicester, favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, monarch of all England and--until Sept. 25--of this particular patch of Columbia. On weekends (and Labor Day), they are hosting the seventh annual Maryland Renaissance Festival. It is a jubilant world of Francis Drakes and Walter Raleighs, costume and custom, royal courts and wandering street folk, madrigal singers and sword swallowers, beggars and falconers and jugglers.

Dudley, a horse of a man at 19 hands and 20 stone, doesn't speak, he booms about the beggars. "They'll throw themselves on the road in front of me and I'll say, 'Oh good, beggar-treading, my favorite sport!' I'll step acrossthem and say, 'They love it, it gives them purpose in life.' And the audience loves that--they see a relationship between classes." Very much like real life.

Except, of course, that the real life at the Renaissance Festival is an old life, 400 years B.T. (before television), and these are actors and actresses slipping into robes and roles for weekend frivolities. Jim Greene is the rat catcher, Michael Marzella the earl; his wife Marilyn is Lettice Knolleys, the queen's cousin and court irritant. The rat is a piece of rug and a boot lace. Everyone knows you can't go home again, especially when it's not just a place but a time.

Except. "You have to be itinerant," Michael Marzella points out, "because you always have to go somewhere else, just like they did in the middle 1500s. A fair would run for six weeks outside the major crossroads of a town. They'd sell things, have food, the rat catcher would be there, minstrels, jugglers, musicians. And then they'd fold down their tents and go down the road and do it someplace else. We have to travel and follow it, if we do it for a living."

"We wear funny clothes and we sweat a lot and sing 400-year-old songs. People you've only read about come to life."

Michael Marzella, a bearded giant possessed of a wonderfully rumbling bass voice that you'd expect to hear only at the top of aBeanstalk, is one of the small, close-knit band of itinerant actors, musicians and crafts people who travel the country's Renaissance fair circuit. For now, the Marzellas and close to 20 other fellow travelers have settled in Columbia. When they are not turning the clock back to the 16th century, they are somehow keeping things innocently ancient in the 20th.

In a midnight hour after two long days of professional merriment, the Marzellas sit back in their spacious converted school bus--she leaning against the upright grand piano tucked against one wall--and gather in sounds: snatches of song from a nearby campfire drifting by like embers and dissipating into the night air; a handful of rakes and rogues sitting under a canopy of stars, eerily lit by a fluorescent lamp, exchanging jokes about giants and recapitulating the best repartee of the day.

Vans and buses and tents are scattered and encamped like a gypsy caravan. The fair's local complement of several hundred crafts people, musicians, actors and food sellers has long since gone to nearby homes; the people still here are at home on the road.

"We're simply doing the same thing that our counterparts did 400 years ago," says Michael Marzella, "except we're doing it with Volkswagen and Chevrolet buses instead of horse-drawn wagons and carts.

"We've run away with the circus, though nobody told us it would be such hard work: singing all day, working in the dust, standing up all the time, wearing hot clothes. But we're lucky to be able to travel and bring something to people that they can't get anyplace else. It's a specialized theater, a special opportunity for people to step out of themselves and be part of a show."

"It's like having a movie in your back yard and suddenly you're an extra," says Minnesotan Kelly Bailey, a facile ring jouster and horseman who also fashions primitive horns while his wife does batik painting. "You can see everything and smell everything, get to play with everything, touch the props, get worked into the script."

"We're creating an atmosphere, an ambiance, a fantasy world," says Michael Marzella. "We're trying to recreate--in people's minds, for a moment--a historical place and time. We don't adhere to it 100 percent--we don't have people dropping from the plague. But we live in a world that has hot weather and we don't have air conditioning; and we have rain and cold weather and we live out under stars if it's necessary. It's more real than what people call real life."

"We put our characters on as easily as we put our costumes on," Marzella adds. "We try to make ourselves so comfortable and familiar with them that when people come from the outside and step into the fair, they also get comfortable with us."

The Marzellas have been married 15 years. Before they started doing renaissance fairs four years ago, they did dinner theater together. She also sang opera and worked in a day-care center in Florida, while he wrote for the St. Petersburg Times. This is their third full year on the road.

They got hooked on fairs during a lull between dinner theater jobs.

"We had a five-week break and there was a brand-new Renaissance fair opening, so we auditioned. We do mostly royal characters--Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Franc,ois I and his sister Margarite, Elizabeth and Robert Devereaux. We don't do types, we do historical characters. We're also just about the only traveling royalty on the circuit.

"We research everything possible--and even teach it from time to time--in such a way that when someone comes in, if they know anything about the history, they know that's the character. They're all very different--Anne Boleyn is very sprightly and alive and Elizabeth is very strong and has a much deeper voice. You want stateliness and royalty but you also want living, breathing people."

Many of the Renaissance performers, particularly the ones who stay with it year round, look at their work as hands-on theater.

"It's great. You walk up and you kiss a lady's hand and you do it right and you teach her husband how to kiss her hand. You can see which couples are approachable--99.9 percent are; only a few are scowlers. 'O look, your hand hasn't been kissed today'--and 99 percent of the time, that's true unless another duke got to her first."

Marzella will make much ado about the gesture, teach the husband or boyfriend how to kiss the hand in terms of 16th-century etiquette.

Jim Greene's face lights up. "A child will give the rat catcher a hug. He's got snot and blood on his face, he looks nasty, and these little girls in their little frocks come running to him, because he said something sweet to them that's made their day and they want to give him a hug. That's a better tip than the money in the hat, that's the heart.

"Last week, three people wanted me to hold their babies for a picture. I said 'Are you sure? This is a very cruel joke on the youngsters!' Sometimes an old woman becomes concerned because I have blood in my ear--it's my trademark. By the end of the day, people care about you."

"It's the opposite of being a politician," Marzella adds. "We're in the business of kissing hands and shaking babies."

The school bus, Old Number 9 (really), was picked up recently in Minnesota for $1,400. "The day we bought it, it had just come back from carrying a football team to a game, a real in-service bus. Of course, we have to learn how to fix it."

The 35-foot, 24,000 pound gross-weight bus--it used to carry 60 passengers--pulls the Marzellas' VW bus.

"The VW has 220,000 miles on it. I know how to fix that."

Inside, it's as homey as can be, storing not only professional gear such as the costumes strung across the unwalled eight-foot closet that separates the living from the sleeping quarters, but the things you don't really want to leave home without.

"Most of what we own comes with us," says Marilyn Marzella.

Besides the piano and a dog and cat, there are four recorders, two guitars, an autoharp, a Casio electronic keyboard and shelves of books. The Marzellas have their own lending library and friends can draw not only from a wealth of books on the Renaissance and Tudor periods, but from tomes on theater, food, art, metaphysics, herbalism and kitchen medicines.

There's a great sharing that goes on, Marilyn Marzella says. "The people here are friendly, living, giving. They're affectionate to each other, and you end up being an extended family."

There are frequent potluck dinners, giveaways and barters. Needs can be met for a song. "If we have a problem with the bus, we can call the blacksmith. The bus next door has some very fine hinges and double padlock hasps made by a blacksmith."

Like the majority of Renaissance fair workers--even the local hires--the Marzellas are independent contractors. Most fairs last six weeks so they can choose from the 20 that have sprung up since the first festival in Southern California 20 years ago. "You pick fairs you like to do, want to do, that pay you sufficiently and fit a geographical pattern that will flow realistically around the country."

Other considerations: attendance figures, past records for weather. "We have a very efficient grapevine."

The itinerants run into one another from fair to fair, sometimes traveling along for three or four events and then not seeing one another for a year. Practically everyone has developed a special act and the more unusual, the better.

Rat catcher Jim Greene, like the Marzellas, is from St. Petersburg, Fla.; he used to run a liquor store. "This is the only theater I've ever done. Theater in the ground, right face to face. You travel, see things, make friends--there's a lot of camaraderie. You get made famous a lot. And I 'm making as much as I made running a liquor store." Like many of the performers, Greene works for tips beyond his salary.

"Only ten dollars a week or so," he says for the benefit of the IRS.

Nobility, of course, may want, but it cannot beg, so the Marzellas also sing madrigals in the woods. "Nobody gives money to the king or a well-dressed noble who has fancy clothes and gold jewelry. Rat catchers they give money to. And beggars do okay."

"We almost make a living," says Marilyn Marzella. "Enough to keep doing it but not enough to get out of it," as if she would. "We make enough money to drive our bus from one festival to the next--that's our rent, and it costs a lot. So please, bring lots of money."

Between weekends, the fair people live reasonably normal lives: relaxing ("we've got to do something about this two-day work week"); doing promotions, working out in gyms; catching up with reading, sleep and friendships. "We make rats, my wife and I," says Greene. "For the orphanage."

Some have gotten into teaching at local colleges and high schools, taking over a school for a day or two and holding workshops and demonstrations in costume, manners, customs, court and peasant life, music, food.

"It brings it right to life," says Marilyn Marzella. "Living history."

They also host and provide the entertainment at occasional banquets for restaurants.

"We're not carnies, and we're not repertory Shakesperean performers," says Michael Marzella. "But we're sort-of-theater that doesn't happen anywhere else except Renaissance fairs and in any country but this."

And of course, the jokes and puns fly fast and furious--on stage, offstage, in the woods and on the buses. These are people who like to laugh, and so they do, frequently.

"Some of our clever witticisms go ZZZZzzzing directly over the heads of the crowd and are never seen again," Michael Marzella admits. "Of course, Shakespeare wrote for the groundlings, the people who only understood the most basic and low sexual innuendo jokes and who would sit down and chuckle at all the dirty stuff. But he also wrote for the middle class and the intellectuals, so there's some very sophisticated and subtle humor as well.

"This is the new vaudeville. We are live theatrical performers who, if we had been born in 1900, would by 1925 have been on the traveling vaudeville circuit. This is the only place to go for live variety acts--jugglers, musicians, fire eaters, tightrope walkers, comedians. Jim would be a baggy-pants comic. It's vaudeville, that's what this is."

It begs less for money than for trees to provide shade, and occasional rain to provide coolness. "We are seriously happy," Marzella says.