On Jan 21, 2012, I attended American Conservatory Theatre’s production of Humor Abuse. Created by Lorenzo Pisoni and Erica Schmidt, the solo performance traces the true story of Pisoni growing up in the Pickle Family Circus.
What originally attracted me to the play was the idea of a behind-the-scenes tell-all about a life in the circus. The play is much more than that. At it’s heart the play is about a kid dealing with the fractured myth of the perfect father. The performance mixed classic clown routines, acrobatics, pantomime, stunts, special effects, projection, and monologue. Each moment is carefully crafted to mix the laughter and pathos.
Production wise, the set, coordinated by Brian Fauska, provides a playground for clowning. A simple canvas backdrop served as a projection and lighting surface. A series of suitcases and trunks decorated the stage, reminding the audience of the life of traveling, and concealing the many props used through out the show. The set also concealed a number of special effects such as trick floor panels, attachment points for props and others items. Add to this a ladder and moving stair case, and all the elements for a life story where there. Contrary to conventional masking that is parallel to the proscenium arch, this set created a box of black drapes which contained the action. Exposed lighting trees on the side contributed to a “back-stage” feel.
Ben Stanton’s lighting was a playful addition to the show. Humor was created through cues that created false expectations and foreshadowing to the audience. Stanton’s palette, a mix of subtle ambers, and chilling blues highlighted various moments of the story exceptionally well. The color pallet was very important to make sure that Pisoni’s skin looked good. Pisoni’s physical comedy caused to sweat a lot, and any make up he tried to wear would have been sweated off by the end of the show.
On a much more personal note…
I’ve worked on solo performances pieces. They are hard — hard to write, hard to perform, hard to design. There are not breaks for the actor — nor does the audience get a “break” from the performer. Costume changes, usually challenging in a solo performance were handled with aplomb. The jumps in time and story, and style provided the variety the audience needs. In my highly biased opinion, this play ranks with Jane Wagner’s “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” for a satisfying evening of theatre as a solo performance. While I doubt that “Humor Abuse” can have any life with out its creator as its performer, the script is well enough written that it might be possible.
This is a play that made me laugh. This is a play that made me think. The is a play caused overwhelming emotions — and not just in me, in the audience surrounding me as well.
At the end of the day, really, what more can you ask for from an evening (or in this case, afternoon) at the theatre!