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EDUCATION ON A STICK : Don't Tell the Little Ones, but the Fabled Shanghai Rod and Puppet Theatre Isn't Just Monkeying Around

March 12, 1992|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

After raising five children, my mother was able to pass on what I view as one of parenting's more significant lessons: With kids, packaging is everything.

To wit: If mom bought store-brand cookies and left them in their original wrapper, she was met with a five-part whine of disapproval. But if, on the sly, she repacked them in an old Oreos wrapper, her little darlings beat a path to the cookie jar.

You might want to remember this if you're planning to see the Shanghai Rod Puppet Theatre during its upcoming visit to the county. For example, on the way to the theater, do not under any circumstances tell the kids they're in for an educational experience once reserved for warlords and emperors of the ancient East.

Instead, drop a few choice references to man-eating wolves, wicked witches and glamorous ladies of the court, and chances are you won't have to drag them kicking and screaming from the mini-van. The Shanghai Rod Puppet Theatre will perform Friday at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo and Wednesday at Costa Mesa's Orange Coast College.

Billed as the official puppet troupe of the People's Republic of China, the Shanghai Rod Puppet Theatre presents ancient Chinese fables to contemporary audiences by blending a 2,000-year-old art form with modern stage wizardry. Manipulated by an unseen corps of 15 puppeteers, the colorful, elaborately costumed puppet characters act out a collection of tales that, while they may be virtually unknown to Western audiences, carry lessons that are universal in nature. Lessons such as: Be careful whom you trust; cooperation can save your neck; and bad guys, generally speaking, finish last.

"The Monkey King" may strike a chord with the budding super-hero in your home: Described as a "suave Superman/James Bond-like" character, the Monkey King is called upon to protect the pure-hearted but naive Buddhist Monk from the insidious White Bones, Queen of the Underworld. A master of disguises and an all-around smooth operator, he must foil White Bones' repeated efforts to serve up the monk as a birthday surprise for her mother, the equally dastardly Mom Bones. Other fables include "The Flamingo and the Clam," in which the title characters tussle over a fish and wind up being the catch of the day themselves, and "The Teacher and the Wolf," a reminder that you can never be sure whom to trust.

The Shanghai Rod Puppet Theatre's U.S. tour, which begins in Mission Viejo and ends in New York in May, is co-presented by New Mexico-based Bill Fegan Attractions and International Asia Inc., a booking agency in San Diego that specializes in Asian performers. Formed in 1960, the Shanghai Rod Puppet Theatre has toured extensively in Europe and Asia, and last visited the United States as part of a cultural exchange program in 1987, according to International Asia president Ken Hai.

The apprenticeship for the troupe's puppeteers is long and intensive, said Hai, who estimates that most company members train for up to seven years; some of the senior members have more than 30 years experience in rod puppetry, which uses slender rods instead of strings to move the puppets across the stage. In excerpts of the show seen on a promotional video, the puppets' movements are surprisingly fluid and natural. Dancers glide gracefully from place to place, lions perform back-flips and balance on balls and a comic sage weaves drunkenly while sipping from a flask.

Hai says that in addition to providing family entertainment, the troupe's performances help non-Asians broaden their knowledge of Asia's vast storehouse of fables and legend.

"It's funny to watch," said Hai, "but it's also a good way for (Americans) to learn the Oriental stories."

Just don't tell your kids that.

What: The Shanghai Rod Puppets.

When: Friday, March 13, at 8 p.m.; Wednesday, March 18, at 9:45 and 11:45 a.m.

Where: Friday at McKinney Theatre, Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo; Wednesday at Robert B. Moore Theatre at Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa.: Whereabouts

McKinney Theatre: San Diego (405) Freeway to Crown Valley Parkway exit, drive east to Marguerite Parkway, then turn right into the campus. Moore Theatre: San Diego Freeway to Fairview Road exit, drive south. The theater is near the school's Arlington Street entrance.

Wherewithal: $14 to $16 at McKinney Theatre; $3.50 (advance sales only, no tickets sold at the door) at Moore Theatre.

Where to call: Friday show, (714) 582-4656; Wednesday shows, (714) 432-5880.

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