It's free-association football time for the Flying Tongues.
The word is: "Name."
"Drunk," "names out of a hat," "names we didn't use," "lipshtick," "land of the rising tongues," "myth of the flying tongue," "tongue tied," shout the five performers who bill themselves as "Baltimore's best comedyslashimprov troupe," They also happen to be Baltimore's only comedyslashimprov troupe.
In some ways, watching the Flying Tongues -- Joe Brady, Jimi Kinstle, Larry Malkus, Bruce Nelson and Melissa Sharlat -- toss out the first things that come to mind isn't that different from watching them perform. This is especially true when they start fooling around with props (an American flag; a red soft sculpture of a tongue) and various get-ups (Malkus and Kinstle don goofy wigs, Nelson rolls up his trouser legs, Sharlat discards her shoes, Brady doffs an under-sized bowler hat).
Granted, the Flying Tongues are more disciplined on stage, as audiences can see at AXIS Theatre, where the company is completing a three-weekend run in a revue called "Un-American, Un-Censored, Um-brella." On Wednesday, the troupe opens at the Theatre Project in a different revue called "Totally Tasteless (leave the kids at home)."
These back-to-back engagements are the Tongues' longest continuous stretch of performances since the group formed two years ago. Along the way, they have played one- or two-night gigs at Center Stage's StreetFest, the Kennedy Center Open House, Theatre Project's Night of 1,000 Risks benefit, Maryland Art Place, the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick and at the Omni Hotel.
About half of the Tongues' material is scripted, and half is improvised. The scripted comedy can be as dark as a deodorant commercial in which two sweaty people raise their arms to point out names at the Vietnam Memorial, while the improvisation can be as seemingly innocent as an audience-participation game of "Jeopardy!" (until the losing contestants are executed at the end).
The goal behind it all, however, is humor. With that in mind, it seems surprising that none of these five Towson State University alums started out as a stand-up comic. Instead, four were theater majors; the exception is Sharlat, who has a degree in psychology and who sings with a local band called Scapegoat.
"The amazing thing about this company is that these were not people who came here to be comedians," says Maravene Loeschke, chairwoman of the TSU theater arts department. "But they had this love of comedy and talent for it."
And, she adds, "They were willing to take artistic risks that the students and faculty hadn't seen in front of an audience."
Nelson -- a former member of Actors' Equity who dropped his membership in the professional union to pursue more varied work -- also believes theatrical training provided a firmer foundation than stand-up. "You don't learn about give and take, and being a group and a team player from stand-up," he explains.
Four of the five began performing improv at TSU in the late '80s with a group that was called Yet To Be Named. Loeschke recalls that the group was so popular on campus its lunch-time performances frequently created minor traffic jams in the student union.
Since then, of course, the Tongues -- who are all still in their 20s -- have played tonier venues. They even auditioned for MTV (although that was more than six months ago, and they're still waiting for MTV to call back). Next month they'll perform at the opening of the Baltimore Museum of Art's new zwing. This winter, they'll do their second annual Christmas show at Winchester's. In the spring, they'll be at the Los Angeles comedy club, The Venue.
Troupe members also act and direct on an individual basis around town, but they've agreed to devote most of their performing efforts for the next year to the Tongues. They're not ready to quit their day jobs, however. (Brady is a waiter, Nelson is an administrative assistant at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Kinstle and Malkus do secretarial work -- although Malkus is currently unemployed -- and Sharlat is a rehabilitation specialist at People Encouraging People, Inc.)
They realize that comedy is a tough business. Even their fanciest gig thus far -- the Kennedy Center Open House last September -- was followed by a poignant reminder. Driving home, Kinstle's Volkswagen bus broke down on I-95. "Joe [Brady] and I sat on a corner in Glen Burnie, drinking out of bottles in paper bags and smoking cigars and saying, 'We just performed at the Kennedy Center!' " he says, raising his hand in a mock toast.
A more recent mishap suggests the troupe may be gaining a following. A few weeks ago, stage manager Mark Cohen was rushing to a rehearsal at AXIS when a state trooper pulled him over for speeding. When Cohen explained that he was late for a Flying Tongues rehearsal, the trooper said, "The Flying Tongues! I love those guys! I saw them at the Theatre Project," and he let Cohen off with a warning.
THE FLYING TONGUES
What: "Un-Censored, Un-American, Um-brella"
Where: AXIS Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road
When: 8 p.m. today and tomorrow
Call: (410) 243-5237
What: "Totally Tasteless (leave the kids at home)"
Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; through Sept. 25
$ Call: (410) 752-8558