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POTATO-FACED MUTES BECOME NIAGARA FALLS' NEWEST CULTURAL DRAW

You could call them the Simpsons on Stage. Or you could call them a bunch of paste heads with no eyeballs.

"Regardless, there are currently no other cultural attractions in Niagara Falls. Trust me. There's the Ferris wheel, there's the wax museum, and there's us."

The "us" of whom David Paquet speaks is the company of Theatre Beyond Words, a group that since 1976 has delighted audiences around the world with the original, weird and relentless saga of Momma, Poppa and Nancy Potato -- big, dumb and depraved.

And that's not to mention its constantly changing "adult" fare, "The Tourists," which features great, dark, snarling wit and a death or two among a lot of funny-looking but miserable travelers sold into a foreign hell by a Mephistophelian travel agent. If you've ever traveled "first class" on the night train from Berlin to Gdansk, this one's for you.

This odd and wonderful little crew was founded in 1976 and has performed a winter season at the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake (the home of its original members) for years. The company's road tours have delighted thousands around the world, particularly because -- as the company name would suggest -- language is no barrier.

This Theatre Beyond Words will haul its whimsy and potato-faced mutes to the Sheraton Brock Hotel in Niagara Falls, Ont., to begin what everyone involved hopes will be a long and pleasant marriage.

"We've played everywhere," says Paquet, the company's managing director. "Spain, France, Portugal, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, the Soviet Union three times and all over North America. Actually, we've played 39 American states. We're better-known in Anchorage and Minsk than we are right here at home."

Regardless of the company's unqualified success as a Canadian export, Paquet claims to be terrified when he contemplates the dark void called summer.

"I'm real scared," he says. "Well, OK, it's not all black, but it's very misty. Very misty."

Don't let him fool you. Those are opening-season jitters and reflect not at all on the superb and charming spectacle about to unfold below the cataract.

The company's promotional literature says that members "create the illusion of a live cartoon." Well, so did Madonna. What do these people have that the woman warrior doesn't have? Orphan Annie eyes, that's what. Dumb mugs, too. A plethora of tasteless plantsuits and no breasts.

Paquet calls the work "visual theater" because, although largely wordless, it is not mime. "We're not above using words if they work," he says, "like with the fast-talking tour guide. The emphasis, however, is on 'taking on' the character -- the gesture, the physical expression.

"We're stretching the art form here. You might compare us to the U.S. group the New Vaudevillians. That's more or less our genre.

"We have no pretensions to being highbrow, but we're certainly not shock, either. Many of our patrons have never been to a live theater performance before, so we're very accessible."

This is true. It is also true that here is a mightily skilled company of consummate craftsmen and -women.

Their masks are papier mache and were adapted from Winter Carnival masks used in the Swiss city of Basil since medieval times. Momma, Poppa and Nancy Potato (a lovely family) all wear the same mask with different wigs, glasses, etc., hence the "family" resemblance.

The choreography is beautifully paced to squeeze nuance from every gesture and movement.

The Potatoes are cute, of course, but the company's "message" isn't always just cute. Some of "The Tourists" makes your neck hairs rise. But I've developed a lot of affection for the little fatheads. There's a little Harp seal, a little Estragon and a touch of Pogo in their many characters and more than a taste of the absurd in their subtle insistence that this is the way things are, like it or not.

However, there was some indication that the residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake -- who make no secret of their dislike of tourists (although many came there first as tourists themselves) -- nixed the idea of a Theatre Beyond Words season there. Paquet won't comment, though he says that there was no opposition from the business community.

"We thought we'd like to do a summer season at Niagara-on-the-Lake -- you know, put up a tent, do family theater. That wasn't possible, though," he says diplomatically.

When Tourism Canada conducted a major study of the Niagara Falls area in 1989 to determine just what was missing, the group concluded to its own surprise that Niagara Falls is not necessarily a "blue-collar destination" and that people are looking for "upscale" things to do.

"It looked good to us," Paquet says. "Six million people a year visit the Falls, many of them from other countries. The yen has made world travelers of the Japanese and after South Korea, North America is their favorite destination.

"Our productions 'translate' quite well to people of many cultures and races. We thought we'd give this a shot."

Well, more than a shot. The troupe has taken over the Sheraton Brock's Grand Ballroom and renovated it just enough to make it a functional (and still quite grand) theater. For the unfamiliar, the Sheraton Brock is about one block from the Rainbow Bridge -- very handy.

"It's going to be fun," Paquet says. "We're here! It's accessible. It's artistic, fun and not expensive." True, true, true.

For $4 a child and $8 per adult, you can spend an afternoon at potato place. There have been six Potato family plays and this year marks the revival of the first potato people show, "Nothin' But Trouble." Show time is 1 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, with extra performances on weekends.

"The Tourists" -- an adult show, remember -- has adult prices, too, which run from $12 to $17. It plays June 28 through Sept. 3 at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with 2:30 p.m. matinees on Wednesday and Saturday.

Have no fear. Theatre Without Words brought the Smithsonian audience to its knees. It drove thousands in the Kennedy Center wild. It rocked Lincoln Center. It drove Miami mad.

Now we'll see if it can steal the thunder from Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum.