Humor Abuse: Theater Review
A man who grew up in a family circus of the literal kind recounts the experience in a solo show at the Mark Taper Forum.
Lorenzo Pisoni might just as well have been born in a trunk. His parents, alumni of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, were founders of the fabled Pickle Family Circus, which innovated the moribund traditional form into a democratic spectacle, without trained animals (humans aside). It was an intimate single ring, a community-oriented expression of socially and politically aware “small is beautiful” performance for the child of wonderment in each of us.
The Pickles themselves comprised a family of committed itinerant artistes, and Lorenzo (named after his father’s stage moniker, “Lorenzo Pickle”) started milking laughs during intermissions at age two and was committed “under contract” by six, borne into the act each performance squashed into a steamer box on his father’s back, encased with inflated balloons and a dummy made up to look just like him.
While Humor Abuse does assume the familiar outlines of the solo show confessional memoir, Pisoni has a trump card. Like his father (and his great-grandfather), he is an accomplished clown with a mastery of acrobatics, gags and – above all – crackerjack timing, so he can convincingly demonstrate for us all along exactly what he is talking about. He warns us at the start that he is, in essence, a straight man and “not funny,” although he well knows that the straight men, with their setups, reactions and double takes, always get bigger laughs than the buffoons. Indeed, his sincere and earnest frankness ensure that he doesn’t get taken seriously, because dismayingly no one can possibly believe someone actually may mean a genuine profession of feeling. No, they’ve got to be kidding.
With his engaging manner, Pisoni camouflages his total commitment to craft with the requisite effortlessness. Even so, he lets us in on the dirty secret of any great talent: it nevertheless requires literally painstaking repetition and numbingly hard work. This his father requires of him from toddlerhood, and that’s what he calls, ruefully yet affectionately, “humor abuse.” He makes those traumatic and ecstatic childhood years of practicing juggling and falling down stairs (such a neglected artform!) vivid with pointed detail and hilariously facile enactments. It’s all immediately illustrated in action, with a glorious command of structure and build, developing the skills of a professional physical comic before our eyes.
And in the comic stylings of our day, there remain very little space allotted for the inventive wit of sight gags and the dance of graceful pratfalls, and Pisoni serves them up straight, no chaser, with neither irony nor the distancing of nostalgia or post-modern deconstruction. This play (and it is a play) has a purity without puerility, a clear-eyed critique of an upbringing not so far removed from Buster Keaton’s that allows him to come to an ungrudging celebration not only of his own accomplished abilities, but of the uncompromising “bad dad” who gave him this great gift, partly genetic and entirely trained.
It’s a beautiful spectacle to watch and share. It earns our affection, and our titters and belly laughs, and its climax is “boffo”: sandbags plummeting perilously within an inch of his life time and time and time again.
Venue: Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, downtown L.A. (runs through Nov. 3)
Cast: Lorenzo Pisoni
Director: Erica Schmidt
Playwrights: Lorenzo Pisoni and Erica Schmidt
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Music & sound designer: Bart Fasbender