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STAGE REVIEW : Shanghai Acrobats and Magicians in Glendale

Times Staff Writer

The ways of the mysterious West are often inscrutable. Back in March, the very ordinary Tianjin Acrobats arrived for a long, prestigious engagement at the Pantages Theatre. Now comes an infinitely superior company from Shanghai--one confirming the legendary warmth and cultivation of that city--and it plays one-night-stands in mostly minor Southland venues.

In Glendale High School Auditorium on Sunday, the 18-member Shanghai Acrobats and Magicians seemed bursting with child-prodigies: especially baby contortionists Rui Wen Chen and Zi Jin, who pretzelled themselves into the kind of positions that usually require the attention of paramedics--and then proceeded to connect up in even more unlikely gymnastic combinations. Remarkable.

Some of the company’s acts depended on this kind of brilliant physical talent (contortionist Yue Chen Zhou plunging through a narrow barrel upside down). Others capitalized on sophisticated trickery (magician Yi Min Liu producing a woman inside a transparent locked water tank that had been empty a moment earlier). And a few exploited cooperative endeavor as much as individual skill (the dancing lions, for example, or the women gymnasts who delicately balanced on top of one another while spinning three or four plates on long poles).

Magic and humor were major components of the program, with Xiao Yan Wang producing endless decks of playing cards out of thin air and Zhen Cai Yao conjuring up bowls of water and a multi-course meal from under his cape.

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However, the show also benefited from mockery of stage magic: clever transitional segments in which performers fumbled classic tricks (eggs being pulled out of a man’s mouth, for example) and revealed how they were done.

Along with such traditional specialties as wire-walking, hoop-juggling and spear twirling, the Chinese also offered a delectable narrative sketch (“Mirror Cleaning”) built on sly physical comedy: a servant trying to prevent his master from learning that a mirror is broken by pretending to be the master’s reflection.

Ken Min Jin, Ke Qiang Jin and Hui Yun Mao executed it with the joyous spirit and immaculate control that typify the best of traditional Asian theater.


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