Toby Tate of Kensington has "fooled with words" and written or played music for about 28 years. This week he is experiencing the luxury of seeing his literary and musical ideas fuse in a theater piece titled "Foolsplay" at Montgomery College in Rockville.

Tate's combination of original jazz, ballads, blues, farcical text and modern and jazz dance is billed as a "nightmare circus." It chronicles a bizarre day in the lives of six circus people who personify tarot-card characters.

The most sinister of these is Jack, a villainous moutebank (snake oil salesman), portrayed by singer-actor Henry Burroughs. Gary Miller's eerie, high-pitched voice in his role as Bobo, the classic starry-eyed and white-faced clown, seems to gnaw at the audience.

Rose, the tattoo lady, provides some of the roughest language and earthiest dance routines in the show. Were nightclub artist Laura Caanan to repeat her role in a film, it definitely would earn an X rating.

Paul Klingenberg's performance as a tramp clown whose adventures range from problems with drink to being the butt of teasing to much more dire fates comes closest to rescuing the lusty jazz musical from its plotlessness.

Two characters have a special relationship to composer Tate. Lila, a scantily clad "kootch" dancer, is played by Tate's 25-year-old daughter, Valerie. The role of the all-important fortuneteller, Maya, is beautifully sung by his wife, Myra.

As the show's producer and Toby Tate's partner in their Kensington music studio, Myra professes to have learned to "beg, borrow and steal" in order to get the show performed. Since "Foolsplay" is an independent production, the Tates had to meet hundreds of dollars in expenses by themselves.

According to the Tates, one dilemma faced by anyone creating a new production is finding an adequate location for set-building. The Round House Theater in Silver Spring provided them with space.

In addition, the Folger Shakespeare Theater offered a stage manager and New Playwrights' Theater lent costumes, makeup and technical staff. That such established groups as these would so generously share their resources, the Tates say, is proof that the professional theater community "hangs together."

Peter Zakutansky of New Playwrights' designed the costumes and makeup to mesh with the cynical lyrics and often-frightening music. The characters grow more grotesque with each act as the theme, "Fools, if left unchecked, become demons," develops.

Tate's theme is heavily philosophical, with word-playing that lies somewhere between the classical delivery of Shakespeare and the inside-out lines of modern playwright Tom Stoppard.

The musical and dance-movement patch work of over 30 numbers reflects Tates's wide-ranging knowledge of jazz.

The dancing, which at times creates as macabre an effect as the music, is the product of accomplished choreographer Sally Nash's response to these two hours of absurd theater. A piano, bass and drums are the only accompaniment.

What makes Tate's project so worthwhile is the amount of familial devotion, time and talent involved in the staging of "Foolsplay." Tate himself spent four years cutting it to a presentable length.

But because "Foolsplay" has no revealed purpose, it fails even as a parody of television's "Saturday Night Live."

New works need constantly to be reworked and even previewed in order that those involved might discover what the audience will laugh at and what it will not laugh at or understand. "Foolsplay" is going through similar birth pangs.

To illustrate two different reactions to the production, one member of the audience at one of the first performances, Sept. 7, was overheard to say, "These characters really grow on you."

"Yeah," his companion responded, "like warts."

Because of its explicit subject matter and language, "Foolsplay" is strictly for adults. Those interested in making their own judgments about the success or lack of success of this local author-composer's staged dream can do so at the Campus Center Theater, Montgomery College, Rockville, this Friday, Saturday or Sunday at 8 p.m. For directions and ticket information, call Myra Tate, 949-3414.