Clowning Around on a Furlough Day

humor_abuseuserpic=ahmansonYesterday, when I got to work, I was confronted with the news that my employer was on shutdown status due to the government shutdown, and as of today, I was furloughed, charging either vacation or no-pay (luckily, I have lots of saved vacation). When I got home — pretty bummed — and told my wife, she said, “Great! Now you can help me chaperone a class from Van Nuys HS to the Mark Taper Forum tomorrow”. Thus, today saw me riding a big yellow schoolbus to the Music Center to see the current Taper production, Humor Abuse. Modulo my headache due to the Santa Ana winds, it was just what I needed.

Humor Abuse” tells the true story of Lorenzo Pisoni (FB)… and it is told by Lorenzo Pisoni (FB). Lorenzo Pisoni’s father was Larry Pisoni, and Lorenzo Pisoni’s family growing up was the Pickle Family Circus. “Humor Abuse” tells the story of the life of a clown. It tells the story of growing up with a father who was a clown, and who wanted his son to be a clown. In fact, it explores the question of which role was more important to Larry Pisoni — father, or clown. It also explores the clown routines of the Pickle Family Circus — both Larry and Lorenzo. It is funny, it is entertaining, and it is sad. The sadness comes from how the clown life affected Lorenzo — both for good and for bad. It raises the question of whether one can act like a child if one never had a childhood… or perhaps that is why clowns are childish… they never grow up.

After the show, I was thinking more about the distinction between a clown and a comedian. Comedians depend on verbal humor and jokes — puns, stories, misunderstanding, situational humor. You want comedians, go to the production at the Ahmanson — Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys“. This show is about a clown — physical humor, slapsticks, visual puns. This clowning begins with the stage announcements, when Pisoni comes up to make an announcement, and the follow spot keeps avoiding him. He eventually needs to staple it to the floor to keep it in place. Visual puns. Physical humor. This humor continues throughout the show, from clowns in a trunk, to pratfalls, to juggling, to falling down stairs, to falling through the floor. Clowns can create their humor without words, independent of language. We have lots of comedians these days, but few true clowns. If anything, this show is worth seeing just to be reminded about what true clowns are. Lorenzo Pisoni, although he claims to be a straight-man, is a clown. He will make you laugh, and you won’t be scared at all. The humor in this show will help your soul.

That said, this seemed an odd show for the Taper — I can’t imagine it is drawing in the crowds. In some ways, it seems a great show for a shorter run venue — a VPAC, a Broad. This doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing — for it is — but the Taper needs to do more to make people aware of what a gem this is. I would never have thought about attending this show — I wasn’t even aware it was in Los Angeles — until my wife made the chaperone offer. I had never seen the LA Times review. I had never heard of Jon Hamm’s Kickstarter effort to make a movie of Lorenzo’s story. It was a last minute replacement for “What the Butler Saw“. So I’m thankful for the furlough — well, at least for taking today as a vacation day — in that it was the kick from the universe to go see this show.

As I mentioned at the start of this write-up, this was a special performance for high school students. At the opening of the show, the representative from CTG talked about what makes theatre so special. One thing was the interaction between the performers and the audience — something that does not exist with a film. The performers feed off the energy of the audience, and every performance was different. This was made clear this afternoon with two different routines. In one, Lorenzo was clowning with giving a balloon to an audience member. In this case, the balloon floated up into the fly space… and popped. That won’t happen everytime, and Lorenzo’s reaction was priceless. In another routine — one where sandbags kept dropping on the stage narrowly missing Lorenzo — we learned in the talk-back afterwards that a number of the drops weren’t when they were supposed to be. That doesn’t happen in the movies, and resulted in additional improvisation. This is why I’m unsure about Hamm’s Kickstarter effort. Clowing on the screen — be it the small screen antics of a Lucille Ball or Jonathan Winters — or the big screen antics of a Jerry Lewis or Roberto Bignigni — just doesn’t have the same humor as a live performer. Live performance brings the timing risk that doesn’t exist elsewhere. You want to see a clown. Go to this show (or go to your local renfaire and seen Moonie).

As you might have surmised by now, this was a one man show; the only performer was Lorenzo Pisoni (FB). The show was created by Lorenzo Pisoni (FB) and Erica Schmidt. It was directed by Erica Schmidt.

Turning to the technical… the set construction credit is buried in the credits, but goes to Seattle Repertory Theatre. It should be larger — Seattle Rep did a truly creative job in the props used, both the original drops and the creative trunks, ladders, stairs, and ballons. The lighting design credit goes to Ben Stanton and was seemingly unnoticeable… except for the beginning and the end of the show. The beginning of the show was noticeable for the clever use of the follow spot; the end was exceptional for the use of the blue light in relationship to the balloon. Sound design and original music was by Bart Fasbender. The sound was clear and crisp, but I noticed the effectiveness of the music even more. Prerecorded, it worked well to support both the mood and the performance. David S. Franklin was the production stage manager, and T.J. Kearney (FB) was the stage manager.

Complements should also go to the students (and their teachers) who attended today. This was a very well behaved and attentive audience — one that was thoroughly entranced with the show. I didn’t see a single text or hear a single phone go off during the show — trying doing that with today’s adults! I was surprised by the large portion that had seen live theatre before, and was also pleased at the number for whom this was their first introduction to theatre. Kudos to CTG for supporting a program such as this.

Humor Abuse” continues at the Mark Taper Forum through November 3, 2013. Tickets are available online; hottix should also be available. A show guide is available. Go see this show, especially if you need a pick-me-up.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  Theatre in October continues tomorrow night with “Breath and Imagination” at the Colony Theatre (FB).  The second week of October sees me at the West Coast Premier of “Burnt Street Boys at the Third Street Theatre (FB).  The third week of October is being held for the production of “Carrie – The Musical (FB) by Transfer Theatre, but tickets are not yet on sale (and it is increasingly looking like this production will now be in 2014). October ends with the Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) production of “Kiss Me Kate” (October 26). November starts with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at Actors Rep of Simi (FB). That will be followed by a visit with Thomas the Tank Engine when we volunteer at OERM over Veterans Day.  The third week will be theatre-ish, as we attend ARTS’s Nottingham Village (FB) (a one-weekend ren-faire-ish market — tickets are now on sale). One of those weekends we’re also likely to see a Trollplayers (FB) production of Steven Schwartz’s Children of Eden” (which runs November 8-17) [Trollplayers is the community theatre group at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Northridge]. The weekend before Thanksgiving will bring Tom Paxton (FB) in concert at McCabes Santa Monica (FB) as well as “Play It Again Sam” at REP East (FB). The last weekend of November brings a rescheduled “Miracle on S. Division Street” at the Colony Theatre (FB).  December is mostly open, but should bring “The Little Mermaid” at Nobel Middle School, and “Peter and the Starcatcher” at The Ahmanson Theatre. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.