Times Theater Writer

Ask anyone of the three members of Spain's El Tricicle (The Tricycle) what they mean by that name and the answer they shoot back is "Three big wheels." Even at breakfast, they can't resist a joke.

Only Joan (pronounced Zho-wan) Gracia, 30, and Paco Mir, 29, showed up that morning to eat fresh fruit and Catalonian cream and talk about the show they would bring to the Los Angeles Festival. (The third "wheel" of this comic velocipede, Carles Sans, 31--the "old man" of the group--had been called away.)

Despite the fact that the group's name points to earthbound locomotion, "Take-Off!," the show it opens at the Los Angeles Theatre Center Tuesday, is strictly up in the air. It deals, presciently, in these days of deregulation, with what has become a superhot topic: the wonderful woes of air travel.

What Gracia and Mir lacked in English vocabulary, they made up for in imaginative syntax. The dialogue took some figuring out, but with two such eager and amiable conversationalists, navigating the language was part of the fun. As for understanding their show, not to worry: It's strictly mimed--a non-verbal romp in which they play all parts, from stewardesses to passengers to ticket agents.

Of their own odysseys in the world of performance, "Joan worked in a bank," said Mir, by far the more conversant of the two. "Carles studied to become a lawyer and I was in the fine arts."

So far so good. Each, it turned out, independently became disenchanted with his area of endeavor and decided, for assorted reasons, to study mime. They met in the late '70s as students at the Barcelona Theater Institute and began performing together in a little coffeehouse, "studying in the mornings, playing at night." By 1982, they developed their first full-length show, "Manicomic," which they performed "in a real theater."

The enthusiasm with which the show was received convinced the three friends that they should stay and play together. Significantly, "Manicomic's" eclectic mix of masks, mayhem and mime was to set El Tricicle's tone. Four years ago, the friends formally adopted the El Tricicle name and declared themselves a company.

"Take-Off!" followed in 1984, "Slastic" in 1986. The latter show involves oddly shaped props a la Mummenschanz. The three guys work out the "gags," give them some order and write them down.

"We all create it," said Mir. "The most difficult is to find the idea. After we get it, we storm."

" Brain storm," corrects the very bashful, very boyish Gracia, who had said little until then. After some coaxing and speaking through an interpreter, he added, "My work is my life. When I wake up I think about what I must do all the day. Mostly, the work. It is the most wonderful thing I can do."

"Table work (meaning the writing down of their material) is perhaps a month," Mir continued. That's followed by two months of rehearsal and two weeks of previews to sharpen the act. But they insist it takes about a year for a show to really fall into place.

Now El Tricicle is "so plenty of things," said Mir, that they devote full time to it. They're so accustomed to one another that they complete each other's sentences. Improvisation is a cinch, or as Mir puts it: "When we are in a coffee theater, we do gags without a rehearsal." As brief as their career together has been, it's on a roll.

They now own their own theater in Barcelona, the Victoria (where "Little Shop of Horrors" and Chicago's "Shear Madness" both have played). They're becoming known in Europe. They're booked months ahead. And that morning, after talking with the visitor from America, they were off to tape a six-part miniseries for Catalan television "about life in a hotel."

"We have start to do theater," explained Mir, "and now we are doing TV. We want to step to the cinema," something they have not done as yet. "We love the cinema."

They have an idea for a film.

"For 20 years they are saying theater is in crisis in Spain," said Mir, "but it's cinema that is in crisis. Before, theaters closed to become cinemas; now cinemas close to become theaters."

And there is another ambition: "We would like to perform on Broadway," Mir said. "If we have a big success, maybe we find someone who will make the film."

Maybe. Meanwhile, Tuesday marks El Tricicle's first foray into Los Angeles (hitting Puerto Rico, Miami and Washington on the rebound). Warned about the enormous spread of the city and the difficulties of getting around in it, Mir smiled, unfazed. "It's OK," he said. "We have a tricicle. "

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