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Kids Take Center Ring in the Latest Fern Street Circus

Family: Funding shortages give more of a nonprofessional slant to the show, which is nonetheless intriguing.

August 13, 1996|NANCY CHURNIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — Since its inception six years ago, the Fern Street Circus--conceived by artistic director John Highkin as an intimate, one-ring community circus sans animals--has radiated charm. Its hotly awaited annual summer forays have been magical times, when nimble, quick-witted performers could tumble, joke and juggle smiles out of kids awed by towering dragons on hidden stilts.

But this year's circus show, "Partly Paradise," running through Sunday in Balboa Park, is aptly named. Memories of the paradise of old Fern Streets linger, but a shrinkage of funding has frayed the magic around the edges.

The troupe has lost many of the professional artists that gave it professional flair. As directed for the first time by Spike Sorrentino, rather than by Highkin, it has devolved from a professional circus for kids to more of a circus by kids with some adult supervision.

It's still intriguing, but the effect is decidedly different.

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Juggler Jamie Adkins is gone, as is most of the Canestrelli family of expert acrobatic performers, who had contributed some of the circus' highlights over the years, including a wondrously funny tumbling act set in a restaurant (with three brothers playing patron, waiter and freeloader). Now Ottavio Canestrelli performs alone. And while he is terrific both at his fire-swallowing and three-legged-man sketches, his role has been shrunk to more of a teacher-trainer of the participating youngsters.

Contortionist Elysia Paladino is gone, along with some of the favorite animal costumes, particularly Brunellus the Donkey, two actors in a donkey suit who would squirt the kids with the animal's tears. But juggler extraordinaire Sean McKinney has made a welcome return, juggling fire on a high motorcycle, juggling a watermelon and a lemon and a coconut with ease, and spinning five pins and then five rings in the air.

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Kadye Diane, who doubles as "animal" trainer Eartha Sable-Williams (a takeoff on the famed Gunther Gebel-Williams), does some elegant twists and turns with young Mariah Kraft on the Spanish webs. And Cheryl Lindley and Garry O. Irvingwhite continue to amuse with their clown sketches.

Only time will tell if this edition of the Fern Street Circus is a departure or a firm change of direction. Highkin confided Saturday that the troupe's board is looking for someone to replace him while he rethinks things. Here's hoping the board will not forget the magic of past years.

* "Partly Paradise," Camp Cahito, 3101 Balboa Drive, Balboa Park (between Quince and Upas streets, near 6th Avenue), San Diego. Friday at 6 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 1 and 4 p.m. Ends Sunday. $1-$6. (619) 235-9756. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

With Ottavio Canestrelli, Tara Canestrelli, Raul Cardona, Paloma Gonzalez, Garry O. Irvingwhite, Cheryl Lindley, Sean McKinney, Piper Simms, Dermon Washington, Ken Marushige, Ruben Campos, Hanibal Sonderegger, Kadye Diane and Bill Dunham.

A Fern Street Circus production, directed by Spike Sorrentino. Music composed and performed by Pea Hicks. Choreography: Christina Jones-Stewart. Costumes: Cheryl Lindley. Sets: Cindy Zimmerman. Stage manager: Spike Sorrentino.

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