31 January 2012

“But Doctor – I am Grimaldi!”

Several years ago a friend borrowed my DVD of City Lights. When he returned it, he said, “But it didn’t make me laugh.” This surprised me, as I had taken for granted that it wouldn’t make him laugh, so it hadn’t occurred to me to mention it. (I had him watch it because of the ending, which I think is one of the greatest things ever captured on film, and which I can’t even describe because I choke up and then dissolve in helpless tears.) I’m a devoted viewer of silent comedians, particularly Chaplin and Keaton, but I don’t watch them because they make me laugh. I watch them for their grace and inventive wit and their skill and timing. I love to see the echoes in Chaplin of Victorian melodrama and Edwardian music hall, and in Keaton of vaudeville and an American fascination with new technology and a home-grown fatalistic surrealism among the white-picket-fence little towns. But laughs? Not really.

I’m just too clumsy myself to find pratfalls funny. I once staggered through several rooms of my house with an old dining room table, carefully maneuvering it around narrow doors and trying not to scrape my hardwood floors, until I reached a door too narrow to angle the table through – and it was only then, after several frustrating attempts and some damage to the paint and the walls, that I realized the legs could be unscrewed and removed. And even now, years later, the gouge marks in the kitchen door bear witness to my difficulties negotiating the obvious. And if someone has spilled water on the break room floor at work and not bothered wiping it up because apparently I do not work with adults, then I’m sure to be the one who’s going to slip and land on his ass while badly banging his knee – in fact, it’s going to happen more than once (not in the same day, at least), and the second time is going to be even better because I’m going to be carrying a cup of water which will drench my shirt and pants as I tumble down. But I think even if I hadn't felt the pain I would still not understand people who laugh when other people fall.

A few years back I went to see Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, performed in Italian and in traditional commedia dell'arte style. I loved the sense of theatrical history that comes with seeing something that an eighteenth-century audience could have seen (except for the electric lights and things like that, of course), and I love the visuals of commedia (Jacques Callot! Jean-Antoine Watteau!), but as the three-hour play progressed I realized . . . funny? Not so much. Yet clowns and circuses do fascinate me visually, metaphorically, theatrically, historically, and psychologically, and nothing perks up a movie like a bitter, vengeful, and possibly alcoholic clown (and Rigoletto is one of my all-time favorite operas), but when it comes to laughs . . . I look elsewhere.

I first heard of Lorenzo Pisoni when he performed at ACT several seasons ago in the lead role of The Gamester, an eighteenth-century tale about a young man with two loves: a beautiful young woman and gambling. The thing about addiction stories is that they are by their nature inherently undramatic: the addiction always wins; that’s what makes it an addiction. But Pisoni was dazzling in the role, bringing unexpected aspects of his part to light, and staying true to both sides of the complex character. After that memorable turn I was eager to see him perform again. So off I went last week to Humor Abuse at ACT, his one-man show about growing up in his father’s circus (co-created and directed by Erica Schmidt).

The announced running time of the show was “approximately 80 minutes” but the night I went it was twenty minutes longer than that. I don’t know why, or if that was unusual. I never really felt that the pace was off or lagging. Pisoni commands the stage single-handedly and easily, with great charm and confidence. I find it fascinating that someone as handsome as Lorenzo Pisoni would regularly stick a big red nose and chalk-white make-up on his face. I think he should do a show about that.

Though the clowning routines were not really the reason I went or the main reason I enjoyed the show (as should be obvious from what I wrote above), I will say right off that I did laugh at them, which is a tribute to Pisoni's skills, even though he claims that his father was the funny one. There is a part with falling sandbags barely missing him as he wanders from place to place on the stage that, while breathtaking, really rattled my nerves.

There is a long rueful routine about the complexities of carrying some suitcases up a flight of stairs which made me laugh because it’s a whole philosophy of life: it’s the sort of thing Keaton would do that would make you understand why he appealed so much to Samuel Beckett. There’s another extended routine, also a study in the frustrations resulting from the simplest actions, in which Pisoni wears swim goggles, an old-fashioned one-piece bathing suit, and flippers, and tries to climb up a ladder so he can dive into a tiny pail of water.

It’s his great skill as an actor that really sells these routines, adding some poetry to their elegant mechanics. At the beginning of the show he gave us some ground rules, announcing that we could eat candy (assuming we had brought some, I guess) and applaud whenever we liked, or “just sit in silent judgment,” a line which gave me my biggest laugh of the evening because that is the sort of thing I find hilarious (because that is the sort of thing I do).

He starts off with a brief history of clowning and his family’s involvement in clowning, both of which spring from commedia dell'arte (his great-grandfather, an Italian immigrant, had joined a commedia troupe). He turns himself into Pantalone and Arlecchino with astonishing speed and thoroughness (maybe he should do a one-man version of The Servant of Two Masters – I'd be up for that), and as Arlecchino he tells a really filthy joke, and then tells us that his father told him that joke when he was seven. So he very skillfully ties his family story in with the theatrical history, though I could have done with a little more background on his parents’ troupe, The Pickle Family Circus. Many of the audience members clearly already knew the background and were there for a nostalgic tumble through a shared past (I saw a number of people wearing Pickle Family Circus t-shirts or jackets, and there was the laughter of sentimental recollection at some of the projected photographs of Pisoni pere et fils), but I really had only vaguely heard of them.

Given the time (the 1970s) and the place (the Bay Area), I assumed there was a countercultural element to the Pickle Family Circus, even before we were told that his father drew clowning inspiration from shamans, medicine men, and the Monkey King. And apparently it really was a family-run circus, though there must also have been other performers involved, but it’s not clear exactly who or how many they were. The set gives a nice sense of what the circus must have looked like, with cut-up rusty coffee cans lined up holding the footlights, and a backdrop duplicating the old circus curtain, with its paintings of local landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge.

Pisoni’s father seems to have been a charismatic but also difficult man, whose problems with alcohol led to the break-up of his marriage and the circus. He kept performing elsewhere (I wasn’t really clear where – he doesn’t seem like a Barnum & Bailey type and I'm not sure where else a clown would go for work). Lorenzo, not yet a teenager, continued touring with the Pickle Family Circus, taking over his father’s routines. He seems to have been a lonely boy who didn’t realize how lonely he was, or how very young he must have looked as he tried to behave as he thought an adult should. His life reminded me several times of Buster Keaton’s life as a child touring the vaudeville circuit with his parents, while his father drank more and more heavily (which must be especially self-destructive for an acrobatic performer who relies so much on his body, his reflexes and timing). Pisoni traveled with the circus until he reached high-school age, with sporadic but affectionate contact with his father, who remarried and divorced again.

He realized that what he thought of as his father was really his father’s clown persona, Lorenzo Pickle, whose first name he shared and whose routines he inhabited for years. Larry Pisoni remained a mystery to him. It’s a fascinating, fleeting insight into the enigmas of identity, and one of several doublings in the show (he used to share space in the act with a life-size dummy of himself as a child, who made a reappearance in this show). Personally I would have preferred a little less of the clown routines and greater detail about his father and the rest of the family (there are just brief mentions of his mother and sister), and about circus life and its physical and mental toll. On the other hand, I respect the reluctance to impose his own theatrically shaped views of his family onto them. They are individuals with their own views of what happened. Perhaps it’s best to allow only glimpses of the darkness and strangeness and the ultimate unknowability of even those closest to us. The great silences around what we know and don’t know are part of the essential mystery of fathers and sons.


Civic Center said...

What's Buddha doing in there?

Glad you enjoyed yourself. I sold apple juice through the crowd for the Pickle Family Circus one weekend in the mid-1970s in the Cole Valley. There seemed to be about a dozen people involved in the troupe, including Geoff Hoyle as the other clown working off Papa Pisoni and I believe Lorenzo was used in a few of the routines. It was an unexpectedly great little show, and I loved seeing it five times in a row while hawking apple juice. When just about everybody involved with the troupe became famous later on, it wasn't all that surprising.

As for Chaplin and Keaton, I share your non-laughing admiration, especially Keaton who was some kind of Buddha.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I didn't want just to repeat Pisoni's stories, since he told them better than I would, but I'm going to here anyway: he did tell a really charming story about how he would go out at intermission and try to "juggle" by moving his hands up and down quickly while holding whatever he thought he was juggling -- only the way the circus made money was to have people go out during intermission to buy drinks and snacks and souvenirs, and no one was going out at intermission because of the adorable child on stage. So they officially incorporated him into the act, complete with a contract.

I was struck by how much grinding repetitive work was involved in making clumsiness graceful -- it reminded me of World of Wonders, the third volume of the Robertson Davies Deptford Trilogy.

Keaton is awesome. And I think you already know what Buddha is doing there. . . .

John Marcher said...


As far as this particular play goes, I'm not sold on the City Lights/Chaplin analogy. That film, and Chaplin's work on the whole, are more magnanimous to the characters (and human frailty) than what's seen on the stage of Humor Abuse.

And since you bring it up, the ending of City Lights compared to the last moments of Humor Abuse only accentuates the world of difference between the two- the first is heartbreaking and perfect, perhaps even the best moment in cinema history- and without a single word being said, of course. The latter closes with a moment of self-pitying self-indulgence. Hardly comparable in my opinion, though had the younger Pisoni been fairer to his father it could have been quite poignant.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I'm not actually making an analogy between Humor Abuse and City Lights (or to other films by Chaplin, or to Keaton's works), except insofar as they are all examples of a certain type of physical comedy. If I hadn't had that City Lights conversation, I could just as easily have referred to less elevated versions of the type such as the Keystone Kops or various pie fights, my point being that things like that don't really make me laugh -- in other words, though I do get things from seeing clowns, laughter is not usually one of those things, which is something that shaped my reaction to Humor Abuse.

By and large I agreed with your wish in your post (in A Beast in a Jungle in the blogroll at right) that he had gone into more detail about some of the personalities and events, though I can see why it might be better sometimes to imply rather than to spell out (it seems to me that if he had been more detailed and specific about certain incidents, it really would have seemed more like an attack on his father, given what we learn about the father's drinking and his temper). I thought he gave a fairly complex and ultimately sympathetic view of a complicated and often hidden man. So I don't really understand why you thought he was unfair to his father -- I suspect that if he had done this show at a different stage of his life, it would have been much angrier, and therefore more one-sided. But he's older, and has a wider perspective on what shaped his father -- it's just fathers and sons, you know? I'm sure you do.

I did find his ending poignant rather than self-pitying and self-indulgent, but there's sometimes a very fine line between those feelings and if you didn't like what he was doing up to then and how he was doing it, you're going to come down on a different side of that line from the one I found myself on.

Incidentally there is at least one word "spoken" at the end of City Lights -- when the Flower Seller touches his hand and realizes who he is, she kind of points at him and the intertitle says, "You?" And he nods. Fadeout.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

OK, I just watched the ending of City Lights again and I have to correct what I wrote: after he nods, he says (via intertitle), "You can see now?" And she responds, "Yes, I can see now." Close-up, fadeout, and even seeing just that five minutes left me with tears rollings down my cheeks.

John Marcher said...

Well, I ultimately came away from it thinking it was an attack on his father, cloaked within a more audience-friendly presentation (and better box-office potential).

Good question about what it may have been like had he done it earlier in his career- and it makes me wonder how he would do it differently ten or twenty years from now.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I'm wondering what specifically he said about his father that made you feel he was attacking him -- I never got a "Daddy Dearest" vibe off the show, or the feeling that he was vindictive in what he said about his father -- to me the approach was more the compassionate understanding of an adult who realizes that his father wasn't just his father, but a separate person with his own problems.

If he's whitewashing his father's personality so we hear nothing about drinking, anger, and divorces, then where's the story? It wouldn't even sound plausible put that way. But I didn't think he was dwelling on those things overmuch (if anything, I thought he minimized them).