Toby Tate's "Foolsplay: A Nightmare Circus" opens with a jive-talk prologue by Dr. Jack, an emcee clearly modeled on the Ben Vereen narrator in "Jpippin." With his eyes bulging, the good doctor advises that "six mad circus artists" will perform "surrealist sideshows." He warns that the original musical, at Montgomery College, will offer "no character development from covert motivations; no suspense to keep you tense with anticipation." Instead, he claims, the show will explore the world of dreams and nightmares.

Dr. Jack is joined by five other circus figures: Bobo, the classic clown; Rose, the tattooed lady; Mya, the fortune teller; Lyla, the cooch dancer, and Will, the tramp clown. They use circus situations to create parables about sanity.

The circus has long been a favorite device for playwrights and filmmakers, creating irony by contrasting the magic of performance in the ring, with the realism of life in the back lot. "Foolsplay" doesn't quite achieve the magic and realism necessary to produce the irony.

There is no real plot, only a chain of skits connected by transitions. The characters change personalities for each skit. In one scene, Bobo is a naive innocent; in the next, he's a schoolmarmish scolder. The skits provide such insights as this: "In your story, you're a hero; someone else's story, you're the villain."

The skits are often accompanied by songs. Tate composed no fewer than 32 musical numbers for the show; the music consists of breezy, pleasant chord changes that rarely rise above the ordinary.

"Foolsplay" is a family affair. The independent production features Washington music teacher Toby Tate as the playwright, composer, director, designer and pianist. His wife, Myra Tate, is the producer, publicist and fortune-telling Mya. Their daughter, Valerie Tate, plays Lyla.