If you've been thinking lately that you'd like to chuck it all and run off and join the circus, don't. It's really hard work. The clown school, Dell'Arte in Blue Lake, CA offers a Masters in Fine Arts in Ensemble Based Physical Theatre, which includes intense physical training to develop the expressive capabilities of the actor, the study of mask, clown, melodrama, and commedia, and ongoing research into the process of making theatre. Being funny is serious business, as Lorenzo Pisoni can attest.
Lorenzo, however, didn't need such a school to help him become a successful clown. He had his father, the founder and star clown of the San Francisco Bay Area's Pickle Family Circus. As he tells it in "Humor Abuse," his one-man show off-Broadway, by the age of two, he was already attracting crowds, most especially at intermission when he'd wander out on stage with a little suitcase, looking like a lost boy, and the audience would go wild.
One might think Pisoni Sr. would have been delighted by his son's appeal but actually this caused a major financial problem for the shoestring circus, which depended on sales of food and souvenirs at the concessions. If the audience stayed in their seats to watch the little boy, they weren't buying. Papa's solution? Make Lorenzo part of the show.
So in 1978, still a toddler, probably not out of diapers, Lorenzo became a clown, performing in a gorilla suit with five other gorillas. Twenty years later, he retired from the circus to begin performing in the theater, but once a clown, always a clown. The art of physical comedy became part of his identity, and the relationship he had with his father, now deceased, continues to inform his whole life.
At the beginning of his exhilarating 90-minute monologue, Lorenzo warns us, "This is about clowning. I'm not funny. I'm the straight man, and I sweat a lot." That assertion is only partly true: he does sweat a lot, the reason, we learn by the end, is the many layers of costumes that keep coming off as he tells his stories. But as funny and entertaining as Lorenzo is, itï¿½s this behind-the-scenes peek into clown life that is most fascinating.
Like a magician revealing the secrets to sleight-of-hand, Lorenzo shows how clowns do what they do, not just in words, but in demonstrations that, at times, seem death-defying. There's the climb up a very high ladder with long, green swimmers' flippers so he can dive into a bucket filled with one spritz of water; his stroll around the stage, stepping on his marks as he just manages to avoid the falling sandbags which practically graze his earlobe; and pratfalls -- lots and lots of pratfalls, including one that caused his father to break his back.
This lesson in clowning is continually fascinating, but it is only part of what Lorenzo wants us to know. He interweaves the clown recitation with what you could call "Life with Father," on the road, eating his pancakes, learning his tricks, and performing with him every day the circus was open. Life was pure joy and Lorenzo worshipped his father -- till he saw him do something that made the god-like man become human.
This fall from Olympus was devastating to Lorenzo, but it ultimately helped him mature, enriching the relationship he had with his father. When Lorenzo talks about him as a human, not a clown, he draws a loving picture of a Pagliacci, or an Emmett Kelly, a silent clown with a sad face and a big red nose who conveyed his feelings with actions, not words.
Lorenzo knew he was loved, and he knew his father had taught him well. On the theatrical stage, in "Equus" and Irish Rep's "Devil's Disciple," we got to see how Lorenzo's physical prowess informed his acting. And in "Humor Abuse," we get insight into what makes great physical humor.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
"Pisoni shuffles amiably through a scrapbook of memories from his eccentric childhood while proffering a few deftly turned samples of the clownï¿½s craft."
New York Times
"he (Pisoni) tends to skim the surface as if to avoid details. It makes the show seem distant at times"
New York Daily News
"charming and surprisingly moving account of growing up at the circus."
New York Post
"a thousand laughs and a dozen tugs at the heartstrings into a very swift 75 minutes."
"gentle, charming, graceful, and wise piece about growing up as the son of circus performers"
"entertaining and surprisingly moving autobiographical one-man show,"
"a clown show of the highest order, but it's also Pisoni's autobiography" & "funny, entirely theatrical and performed by somebody demonstrating (and deconstructing) his maniacal devotion to a difficult craft."