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KID STUFF

A PHYSICAL EDUCATION : Chinese Magic Revue Focuses on Amazing Acrobats Who Train as Early as Age 6

October 06, 1994|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

No rabbits pop out of hats at the Chinese Magic Revue. No women disappear. And there are no floating crystal balls, not even a lousy card trick.

But you will find a different sort of magic--the kind created by performers who invest a lifetime of long hours and strained muscles to perfect a physical art form that has been a part of their heritage for thousands of years.

Subtitled the "Original Acrobats of Taiwan," the 16-member touring company gives its first Orange County performances in several years Monday and Tuesday at 8 p.m. at the Irvine Barclay Theatre and Oct. 14 at McKinney Theatre at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. The two-hour shows are recommended for all ages.

The Chinese Magic Revue, which has also been billed under such titles as the Magic Circus of Taiwan and the Chinese Golden Dragons of Taiwan, focuses more on acrobatics than it has in previous years, said Don Hughes, who co-produces the show with Ken Hai, a third-generation acrobat whose family established the troupe in Taiwan in 1970.

Martial-arts demonstrations were once a big draw--including a bit in which a man crushed bricks on another performer's head with a sledgehammer--but were dropped when they were found to be too intense for some children to watch (OK, parents, you can breathe now). And, yes, there was even a smattering of Chinese magic at one point, too.

The current show opens with a production number inspired by the Chinese lion dance, a tradition used for centuries to announce the arrival of traveling acrobats to a new locale. Following that are 14 back-to-back (or, in the contortionist's case, back to scalp) feats of physical strength, balance and endurance.

Acts include the "Tower of Chairs," in which longtime company member Chen Tai An (the cast calls him "the chair man"), takes four upright champagne bottles and stacks chairs on top of them. (His record is 28 feet.) Then he performs a handstand from the top of the pile.

There's also a juggler who keeps armloads of fragile Chinese jars and vases aloft. And a female contortionist who twists her body into positions that, as Hughes describes them, would turn Gumby a deeper shade of green in envy, all the while balancing burning candles on her head, hands and feet.

Other highlights include the Bicycle Pagoda, in which nine performers balance on each other on board a moving bicycle, and a unicyclist act in which the rider, using a spike held in his mouth, catches limes that the audience tosses to him (sometimes none too accurately, Hughes notes).

Though some of the performers speak English and maintain residences in California (the company's headquarters are in Pismo Beach), the Chinese Magic Revue relies almost exclusively on physical instead of spoken humor. For example, a plate-spinning act that's popular with children features a harried chef madly trying to keep a dozen plates going while his inept kitchen crew gets underfoot.

The acrobats, who range from teen-agers to adults in their 50s who have been with the troupe since its early years, typically begin their training at age 6. By their early teens, they are spending 20 to 25 hours per week on their craft, at which point they may audition for a professional troupe.

For those who join the Chinese Magic Revue, an arduous international touring schedule awaits, said Hughes, ticking off a list of credits ranging from Madison Square Garden to county fairs. Since he's been with them, the troupe has performed in some 30 countries, driving as much as 1,400 miles between shows.

Scheduling demands, however, haven't affected the performers' dedication to their craft.

"They're a very professional group of people," Hughes said. "I remember once, we were in a small town in Northern California and the electricity went out right when the group was ready to go on."

They were told it would be at least two hours before the theater would have power.

"The woman who had organized the show came back and offered to cancel," he continued. "The cast said, 'No, don't' . . . and they went outside and arranged the bus and truck (to make a stage), then told the audience to sit in their cars and put on the headlights. They did the entire show right there . . . and not one person asked for their money back."

* What: Chinese Magic Revue.

* When: Friday, Oct. 14, at 8 p.m.

* Where: McKinney Theatre, Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo.

* Whereabouts: From the San Diego (5) Freeway, exit at Avery Parkway and drive east. Turn left on Marguerite, go about a quarter of a mile to the college entrance and turn right. Take the second left to parking lot 12.

* Wherewithal: $16 general admission; $14 for those 18 and under or seniors 60 and over. Parking is free.

* Where to call: (714) 582-4656.

* What: Chinese Magic Revue.

* When: Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 10 and 11, at 8 p.m. (Also Friday, Oct. 14, in Mission Viejo. Details Page 12.)

* Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine.

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