A charming play at The Rep, but a dark question beneath

Lorenzo Pisoni makes the most of a childhood centered on the circus. But is he hiding the pain in a quest for laughs?

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In "Humor Abuse" at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Lorenzo Pisoni recounts a childhood spent in the family circus.

Lorenzo Pisoni makes the most of a childhood centered on the circus. But is he hiding the pain in a quest for laughs?

Lorenzo Pisoni was raised by clowns. As a teenager, his father, Larry, ran away from home to join the circus. By the time little Lorenzo could walk, he was running away, too — away from his father’s small-time family circus in search of the real world. His father’s response was to pin a button on Pisoni’s clothing that read, “I’m Lorenzo and I belong to the circus.” Pisoni’s one-man show, Humor Abuse, is simultaneously a tribute and an indictment, drawing the audience into the true story of a childhood dominated by a quest for laughter that was all too serious.

Pisoni’s childhood circus, as presented by Scenic Coordinator Brian Fauska in the play currently at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, is spare and shabby, backed by a dirty canvas drape and cluttered with stacks of battered suitcases. The stage is dominated by two menacing objects: a grungy staircase covered in red carpet and a large steamer trunk. For his big entrance, Pisoni pops out of the trunk, announcing, “My father’s a clown and I have suffered from years of humor abuse.”

During the 1970s in post-hippie San Francisco, Pisoni’s mother and father formed a troupe of neo-vaudeville performers, the Pickle Family Circus. Pisoni’s father had earned his clown shoes in an East Coast commedia dell’arte company, playing classic characters like Pantalone and Arlequino. Lest the audience get the impression that his father’s roots were highbrow, Pisoni impersonates his dad as Pantalone, telling one of the dirtiest jokes heard lately on a Seattle stage. “My father told this to me when I was 4. In Italian,” he deadpans. In 80 breathless minutes of frenetic acrobatics and ego-free introspection, Pisoni sets out to unravel the mystery of why his father decided to become a clown, pursuing humor at the cost of his health, his marriage, and ultimately his sense of self. The stakes are higher than mere curiosity for Pisoni, who believes that clowning is a hereditary affliction.

After making his professional debut in the family circus at age 2, Pisoni spent the better part of his childhood juggling, pratfalling, mugging for the audience and desperately trying to win his father’s approval — or at least a laugh. “I’m not funny. I was born to be my father’s straight man,” Pisoni says. Black and white photos of the toddler clown projected on the canvas confirm the utter humorlessness of little Pisoni’s performance. Adorable and rigidly serious, his eyes are never sad or angry; neither are they tinged with any hint of a smile. As the pint-sized half of a father-son act, Pisoni was tasked with cramming himself into trunks, falling down flights of stairs, and enduring terrifying popping balloons, while his father embraced a quasi-religious belief that clowning could bring him to a state approaching divinity. For Pisoni and his father alike, being funny was never a laughing matter.

Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of Humor Abuse is an undeniable charmer. There’s stage magic aplenty, as uninflated red balloons rain unexpectedly from above, silver spangles erupt from a water bucket, and heavy sandbags crash to the stage floor mere millimeters from Pisoni. Lighting Designer Ben Stanton’s work with the lively spotlight succeeds in creating a second character on stage. Pisoni’s affable storytelling never fails to engage, whether he’s confessing his darkest act of teenage rebellion (joining his high school student council) or leaping from a wobbling ladder while clad in a neon green frog costume. As a performer, Pisoni’s physical versatility and endurance are remarkable. He tap dances, he juggles everything from bits of carrots to bowling pins, and he enacts lightning quick costume changes while wielding absurd props that include a plastic banana and a child-sized puppet.

As Pisoni’s story wends its way from the 1970s to the present day, a nagging question demands an answer: to what extent is he sugar-coating his childhood for a laugh? It’s very amusing to watch him re-enact the madcap routines he and his dad did for the masses in California, but it’s chilling to note that his father put him under a legally binding contract as a performer while he was still in grade school. Grainy photos family photos from the 1980s invariably depict Pisoni’s father clutching a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The sweet and silent clown, according his son, was a loud and sometimes terrifying presence outside the big top tent.

Though he recalls the years spent performing with his father as blissfully happy, by age 10 it was all over. His parents split up following a violent, alcohol-fueled incident and the Pickle Family Circus went on without its founder. It was up to 11-year-old Pisoni to hold the operation together. He became the ringmaster, he pounded tent stakes, and he performed all of his father’s clowning routines for the crowds. By age 13, he’d had enough. He quit the circus, enrolled in high school, and then packed himself off to college, where he hid his acrobatic abilities. His escape from the circus into the mundane world had been effected, but whether he would be able to resist the goofy glamour of floppy shoes and big red noses for long was uncertain.

Named after the clown character his dad created for himself to play years before he was born, Lorenzo Pisoni grapples with his identity throughout Humor Abuse. His father’s final call to return to the three-ring life one last time represents the hardest stunt Pisoni has ever faced, namely acknowledging that the clown who raised him is dead, while the father who remains is both a real man and a flawed stranger.

If you go: Humor Abuse runs through Oct. 23 at Seattle Repertory Theatre. For tickets, visit www. seattlerep.org.


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