Jose Carrasquillo arrives at the Olney Theatre Center early to do exercises that help gird him for the wrenching performance he gives eight times a week as a man dying of AIDS in "A Question of Mercy."

A New York-based director whose most recent Washington productions were "Clean" at Studio Theatre's Secondstage and "Metamorphosis" at Washington Shakespeare Company, Carrasquillo rarely acts professionally. Yet he required little cajoling from director Jim Petosa after reading David Rabe's play.

"I told him I would love to do the role because I don't think Anthony is really a nice person. I really think he is angry and he is manipulative," Carrasquillo said of the character he imagined was "a true Latino charmer" before he got sick. "He kind of uses the disease to get his way, and I loved that aspect of it; not playing him safely. . . . I love that because it makes him human."

Carrasquillo and Petosa concentrated on the physical aspects of the character first. "We decided that the mechanics of the disease needed to be created," he said in a post-performance phone visit. "Once the mechanics were established, I would be able to speak through those mechanics." His character, Anthony, wants to die and begs his lover to team up with a doctor acquaintance and their best friend to help end his suffering. But the reluctant co-conspirators have a tough time with the concept.

In part "copying what I saw in some of my friends who died," Carrasquillo hobbles about the stage with a crunched stomach, bent legs and a voice lightened to imply feebleness. "When a person loses muscle mass, all you have is a bag of bones," he explained. "When that happens you look like a puppet." The 38-year-old Puerto Rican-born actor maintains that clenched posture for more than two hours.

Audience members have occasionally walked out during early scenes. "I don't know whether it's the gay issue or the graphic depiction of what he has, but if they get past that, it's quite amazing, because you feel that they're with you," Carrasquillo said. "People come to me and tell me they have lost a son or lost a loved one to AIDS and that they have been moved by the work onstage. That means a great deal to me."

Fashioning Fairy Wings

"I've had very little sleep in the last 27 years," admitted the busiest costume designer in Washington-area theater. Rosemary Pardee is the resident designer for Round House (22 years), Olney (12 years), Interact and Baltimore's Everyman, as well as Gallaudet University's theater department. She designs about 30 shows a year.

A couple of weeks ago, her costumes bowed in three wildly different productions--"Mere Mortals," a contemporary farce at Round House; "A Question of Mercy," a somber drama at Olney; and "The Very Model of a Major Merry Music Hall," a sprightly Interact Theatre Company blend of English music hall comedy and Gilbert & Sullivan tunes at Arena's Old Vat.

Her neon-colored ensembles for "Mere Mortals," just like the six David Ives playlets, are simply a giggle. Picture two actors as courting mayflies, complete with wings, downy thoraxes and two sets of fuzzy arms apiece. It was clear, in a phone interview with Pardee last week, that she had fun rooting around in stores for this one.

"Mortals" director Nick Olcott showed her a magazine article on the film "A Bug's Life" and told her that should be her color scheme. She grabbed fairy wings from an ice skating costume shop, and big sunglasses and goggles from a hardware store. Then, "I was in Gantos in Wheaton Plaza, and they had these fuzzy green T-shirts that looked like hair--like a shag rug--and they were lime green. I said, ooh, ooh, that could be her hair!" She found the lime-green sports jacket and purple pants at Syms (a favorite spot for costume designers on the hunt, Pardee said).

Actors often make suggestions, too. "One of the enjoyable parts of my job is that collaborative moment," Pardee said. "Somebody has an idea, and somebody comes up with one to add to it, and add some fabric to that idea, and bing, there we are."

She tinkers with the costumes right up to previews. For example, Pardee decided to fade a dress worn by Jane Beard in Round House's "Uncle Vanya" last season so it wouldn't distract from the final poignant scene. "That's what I think makes wonderful design. That's the real secret. That your impression of that last moment of the play is enhanced."

Pardee found her calling early, growing up in Silver Spring and going to a Catholic school. She designed a nun's habit so she could play school at home. "My mother helped me make a long blue skirt, and got paper and helped me make the coronet." They added a skate key on a long chain for the rosary. "It was just the right look."

Pardee majored in theater at the University of Maryland, graduated in 1972 and has been designing costumes ever since. Her husband, Richard Slocum, a musician and chairman of the fine arts department at a private high school, noted to Backstage that bits of his wardrobe keep turning up onstage. He'll whisper to Pardee at a performance, "Isn't that my jacket?" Sometimes, he said, he even gets them back.

Follow Spots

* All 720 slots have been filled for the League of Washington Theatres' annual audition marathon, set for July 7-9, 12 and 13 at Arena Stage. Anyone who didn't register can try standby status. League president Ann Norton suggests that standbys arrive early and be ready to wait. Most standbys do get seen. Bring 60 photos and resumes.

* Theater of the First Amendment at George Mason University's Center for the Arts will open its next season with a play by Vaclav Havel. "The Memorandum," a satire of bureaucracy by the dissident playwright, now president of the Czech Republic, will run Sept. 8-26. Washington-based playwright Karen Zacarias will premiere "The Sins of Sor Juana" (Nov. 3-21), based on the life of a girl in 17th-century Mexico who disguised herself as a man to crash the university and became a published poet. Last, TFA will debut "Sing Down the Moon" (March 8-April 3), a musical based on Appalachian tales, by Mary Hall Surface, music by David Maddox. Call 703-993-ARTS.

* Rep Stage in Columbia will open its 1999-2000 season with Brian Friel's drama about the fading of Ireland's language, "Translations" (Sept. 23-Oct. 10). Lee Mikeska Gardner (who's directing both "Angels in America" installments for Signature) will direct Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women" (Oct. 22-Nov. 14). That will be followed by the campy drag show "The Mystery of Irma Vep" (Feb. 4-27), by Charles Ludlum, which artistic director Kasi Campbell chose to showcase actors Bruce Nelson and Brian McMonagle. Finally, she'll revive Anthony Shaffer's mystery "Sleuth" (March 16-April 2). Call 1-410-772-4900.

* Norman Allen, resident playwright at Signature Theatre, has written a comic melodrama set during the Gold Rush. "Fools Gold," a commissioned piece, will be presented in the Gold Rush town of Columbia, Calif., by the Sierra Repertory Theatre in July and August.

* Ideas discussed at two 1998 conferences on the state of black theater in this country--both inspired by playwright August Wilson and his now-famous debate with director and critic Robert Brustein--have been culled into a new book. "Black Theatre's Unprecedented Times" is available through the Black Theatre Network. Call 1-352-495-2116.

CAPTION: "Question of Mercy": Anthony (Jose Carrasquillo), left, seeks Dr. Chapman's (James Slaughter) help to die.

CAPTION: Marty Lodge and Jane Beard as mayflies in "Mere Mortals."