A perfect impersonation is not the goal of the production, anyway, especially since so many people still have clear memories of the Marx Brothers.
"You can't live up to that," Jones, 62, said, "but you can live up to the spirit."
That spirit is totally, disarmingly zany. To spread that quality around, the "Animal Crackers" adaptation does not put all of the comic-engine weight on the actors in portraying Groucho, Chico and Harpo.
Most of the others in the cast get a chance to reveal their chops by taking on multiple roles. It's a familiar device in the theater, used most memorably in recent years in the Broadway hit "The 39 Steps." This "Animal Crackers" has 21 characters and something like 60 costume changes, but only nine actors in all. "It requires a virtuosic ensemble," Kalina said.
Marx Brothers stage shows were notorious for improvisation and irreverence, qualities that tended to get somewhat defused in the movies.
"I read firsthand accounts of what was happening in theaters when they performed," Kalina said. "People thought they were crazy. They did wild things. They would strip their producer and wheel him onstage in a basket and make him run off. That's why audiences loved them. There was an extreme sense of play. Nothing was sacred."
Some Marx Brothers business has not aged well. Captain Spaudling's first appearance in "Animal Crackers," for example, involved being carried in on a covered chair borne by African natives.
"That would be politically and socially incorrect today," Kalina said. "But we had to have a spectacular entrance for him. I created one."
It would also be unwise to preserve all of the original "Animal Crackers," which was a long play even before the brothers inserted things (performances were known to run for four hours or so).
The adaptation that Center Stage is using trims a fair amount of material — "The plot is simplified; it gets right to the Marx Brothers' madness," Jones said — but keeps most of the original music. (The movie jettisoned several songs.)
It also strives to retain the authentic anarchic edge. This is no ordinary play with a clear-cut beginning, middle and end.
"What the Marx Brothers did in 1928 was a kind of performance art, when you think about it," Jones said. "People never knew what they were going to do. 'Animal Crackers' is more like two plays that collide and one takes over the other. It was an assault on theatrical structure."
Jones got turned on to the Marx Brothers as a college student after attending an all-night festival of their films in 1969, a time when anti-authority antics seemed newly relevant.
"The Marx Brothers were anarchists, and we all felt they would have joined us, in a comedic way, in smashing down walls," Jones said. "If we're trying to re-create anything in 'Animal Crackers,' it's the sense of being at the first Broadway performance and seeing the Marx Brothers suddenly break out. Once you're on this ride, it's fast and clear and brisk. And you stay on it for the giddy exuberance of it."
If you go
"Animal Crackers" opens Wednesday and runs through Oct. 13 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $19 to $59. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org