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Lords of the Ring

Circus Vargas Features Ensemble Cast in an Intimate Environment


Exotic circus animals have been capturing the public's attention since the 1830s, but in recent years they've really been causing a stink.

Animal-rights activism, tougher legislation regarding the importation and care of animals and the mounting expense of keeping even a small menagerie on the road all have made it difficult for circuses to keep creatures cavorting in the center ring.

Old-time circus fans and animal advocates hotly debate whether modern circuses even need to keep animals in their shows. The argument is fueled by infrequent but nonetheless tragic incidents, such as when a circus elephant went on a rampage in 1994 and killed its trainer in Hawaii and by the successes of such troupes as Cirque du Soleil, which uses no animals.

Meanwhile, many circus owners and nostalgic fans fret: If trained lions, tigers and bears--even the occasional white rhino, oh my--were absent from the big top, would circus audiences follow?

While huge operations such as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey use their ample public relations offices to address the question head-on, Circus Vargas--a much smaller, Ventura-based company that plays Orange County through Sunday--seems to prefer a low profile. Last week, nearly a dozen requests to interview co-owners Roland Kaiser and Joe Muscarello for this story were unsuccessful.

After seeing Circus Vargas during its run at the Huntington Beach Mall recently (it's in Santa Ana through Sunday), it's hard to see why they're so gunshy.

Performed under a 2,400-seat blue-and-yellow big top, Circus Vargas manages to serve both camps of animal lovers admirably.

There are exotic animal acts, but only two: Susan Lacey's show-opening white tiger act and Chip Arthur's five Hawthorne Melody Elephants, each act entertaining and/or thrilling in its own way.

In any case, the main attraction for Vargas audiences seems to be the intimacy between performers and viewers.

Top-price ticket holders sit just inches from the single ring (the company went from a three-ring show to a single ring a few years back). But even those in the least expensive bleacher seats are no more than 75 feet from the action.

The proximity is a real plus--unless, of course, you're the type who gets jumpy when a two-ton elephant raises its forefeet almost literally over your head, in which case you might want to opt for the cheaper seats.

In many ways, Circus Vargas is a throwback to the infancy of the American circus, when equestrian performer John Ricketts staged his first circus in Philadelphia in 1793. Vargas is an ensemble show; performers take multiple roles.

The same guy who performs in the Trio Pavlovich's impressive contortionist act returns later as the bottom man in a ring perch acrobatics act--and hawks inflatable pink elephants at intermission.

One especially appreciates the intimacy during acts that showcase precision, such as the Faludis' (dad Fudi, mom Gyorgyne and daughter Viktoria) smooth but lightning-quick juggling act.

Rarely do viewers get such an up-close look at the concentration needed to keep all those rings, clubs and hoops whizzing through the air (or to actually feel the breeze as they fly overhead).

Also worth noting is the appealing, between-act clowning of gentle Manny Valdo, who should help calm the fears some youngsters have of clowns.

Indeed, when you add the carnival attractions of the small sideshow (pony and elephant rides and a "giant snake"), Vargas is well-suited to younger children who may be overwhelmed by the Vegas-like spectacles of Ringling Bros.

* What: Circus Vargas.

* When: Today and Friday at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 12:30, 4:30 and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 12:30, 3 and 5:30 p.m.

* Where: The parking lot at South Main and Pomona streets in Santa Ana.

* Whereabouts: From the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway, exit at MacArthur Boulevard, drive west to Main Street and turn right.

* Wherewithal: $4 to $18.50; call for information about discount coupons.

* Where to call: (714) 901-0440.

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