Center Stage patrons know him as a judge, a waiter, a Nazi, assorted Shakespearean fools and Cardinal Wolsey.
Beginning Friday in the new Head Theater, he'll be portraying a stablehand, a titled British lady, an Egyptian tour guide and a mummy -- all in one play, Charles Ludlam's spoof of penny dreadfuls, "The Mystery of Irma Vep."
He's Wil Love, and he's played more parts in more Center Stage productions than any other actor. Including previous instances of multiple casting, the total comes to 35 roles in 28 plays.
Most recently, Mr. Love was seen as Scott Joplin's music publisher in Eric Overmyer's "The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin & Louis Chauvin." During the last week of that run, he was performing "Heliotrope" at night and rehearsing "Irma Vep" during the day.
Music publisher by night; mummy by day. Some actors might find it a long stretch. But not Mr. Love, who has called Baltimore his home ever since he was cast in his first Center Stage production, "A Cry of Players," in 1970.
"I think for anyone who's seen him act, you know how extraordinarily versatile he is," says Peter W. Culman, the theater's managing director.
"He's one of Baltimore's great theatrical natural resources," agrees Stan Wojewodski Jr., who is directing "Irma Vep" as his final production as Center Stage's artistic director. "He's a highly transformational actor. He's got a tremendous comic gift, and he's extremely disciplined."
Sitting in the theater's downstairs bar calmly sipping his morning coffee, the 48-year-old actor certainly seems relaxed as he prepares for another day rehearsing quadruple roles.
"It's luxury here," he insists. "You get a month to rehearse." In contrast, Mr. Love recalls his first summer stock job in the late 1960s. He was working at a theater in Detroit that put on six 1940s musicals in seven weeks; he played leads in three. Each show had 22 hours of rehearsal.
"I learned early on that you can do this fast, you just have to concentrate," he says.
"He's one of the fastest studies I know," confirms Carl Schurr, who has known Mr. Love for 20 years, beginning when they appeared together in "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine" at Center Stage and continuing through Mr. Love's 105 productions at the Totem Pole Playhouse in Fayetteville, Pa., where Mr. Schurr is producing artistic director.
Mr. Schurr thinks Mr. Love is a natural when it comes to juggling multiple roles. After all, he's seen him juggle 11 in "Greater Tuna," in which Mr. Schurr directed him twice. "Wil is so adept at a clean delineation of characterization," he explains.
For his part, Mr. Love says what concerns him most are the fast costume changes in "The Mystery of Irma Vep," a melodramatic horror story whose chief comic conceit is that two actors play hTC eight characters. Although the script is loaded with literary references to writers such as Ibsen, Shakespeare, Poe and the ** Brontes, he claims the play is "just laughs" and that "a great deal of the charm is how outrageous can you get scenically and how quick can we handle the changes."
Despite the fact that he played more characters in "Greater Tuna," Mr. Love says, "this is the fastest changing I've ever done. [In some cases] you're changing costumes within the space of six words, and entering by a different door."
Furthermore, the costumes, designed by Robert Wojewodski (the director's brother), are no simple affair. Not only does Mr. Love show up swathed as a mummified princess, but in his British lady persona he'll be strapped into a boned corset and padded garment that'll give him the ample dimensions of 49-32-40. However, as the director points out, getting in and out of these complex outfits will be facilitated with the help of three dressers.
And the truth is, Mr. Love enjoys working in elaborate costumes. In fact, if Baltimore audiences can't immediately attach a face to the name Wil Love, chalk it up to his fascination with altering his appearance on stage.
"I came from the school of acting that loved disguises. Once I'm made up and in costume, it helps me to look in the mirror. There's something about seeing yourself looking different that helps you get into a character," he explains.
Out of makeup, Mr. Love looks unassuming -- a cheerful balding man in horn-rimmed glasses, whose appearance seems closer to his middle America, Midwestern roots than to the flamboyance of the theater.
A Missouri native who grew up in Wichita, Kan., he began acting in high school -- "only because a girl I had a crush on wanted me to." As it happened, his high school had the only full-time drama teacher in the state, as well as a huge theater in which the young Mr. Love learned to project his voice.
By the time he went to college -- first Witchita State University, then Washburn University of Topeka -- he was hooked on theater, much to the dismay of his parents, both of whom were business people. "It was completely alien to them. I don't think they frankly understood my fascination with it," Mr. Love says.