Fathers and Sons

23. January, 2012 Theater No comments

It’s a remarkable coincidence: In the last couple of weeks both Berkeley Repertory Theatre and American Conservatory Theater have opened plays about sons grappling with their memories of their fathers, both prominent Bay Area figures of the 1970s. Ghost Light at Berkeley Rep is a fictionalized play based on California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Jonathan Moscone contending with the specter of his father, the assassinated San Francisco mayor George Moscone. Humor Abuse is Lorenzo Pisoni’s one-man show about growing up as a baby clown in San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus under the unrelenting tutelage of his father, Pickles founder and clown Larry Pisoni (who thankfully is still around and was in the audience opening night).

Peter Macon in Ghost Light. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

Commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which premiered the play last summer, Ghost Light was written by Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, and in fact was his playwriting debut. The company’s season opener in September, Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup, was also written by Taccone out of long conversations with its subject. A similar process went into Ghost Light, which Jonathan Moscone coconceived and directed. OSF’s world premiere production is the one that now comes home to Berkeley.

Todd Rosenthal’s set is terrific, with a few simple furnishings in Jon’s home overshadowed by the immense facade of City Hall. Maya Ciarrocchi’s projections show snippets of old sitcoms and news reports of the 1978 shooting of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by fellow Supervisor Dan White.

The character of Jon in Ghost Light is also a theatrical director, and his father is also the mayor of San Francisco who was assassinated when Jon was a kid. Jon is directing a production of Hamlet but is hopelessly stuck on how to stage the scene involving the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and he’s plagued by dreams in which his drunk prison-guard grandfather harangues Jon’s imaginary boyfriend, proclaiming that Jon’s father is coming. Meanwhile, a ghostly policeman lectures Jon’s child self on how he has to allow himself to grieve to free his father’s spirit.

It’s tricky subject matter to tackle, and Taccone’s script dances around it in a convoluted, elliptical way. The Hamlet conundrum is an interesting point of entry, although it soon becomes clear that it’s not really a big deal if Jon doesn’t solve it. A much bigger problem is that most of the characters exist only in Jon’s head. The dream-sequence scenes in which they appear are largely tedious and emptily portentous, which is bad news because they make up the vast majority of the play.

After one of these scenes involving his younger self being lectured on “universal traffic control,” Jon shows up in the audience saying, “I’m sorry, I didn’t believe that. How many of you believed what happened in that last scene?” It’s a breath of fresh air, because the preceding section was indeed full of heavy-handed nonsense. “That scene we just saw was from the ooga-booga school of acting,” Jon says, and he’s not wrong. But it turns out that he’s just giving an acting seminar and there’s plenty more ooga-booga to come.

It’s not the actors’ fault. Peter Macon has a rich, booming voice as the spectral policeman, and Danforth Comins is charmingly at loose ends as the hunky man of Jon’s dreams, Loverboy. Sarita Ocón has several walk-ons as a silently smoking widow, but nothing comes of her presence except an egregious pun. The ghost grandpa that Bill Geisslinger plays is unrelentingly irritating, shouting homophobic abuse and obtuse prophecies, but Geisslinger has a terribly effective unspeaking cameo as Jon’s tremendously self-assured father. Tyler James Myers plays very young and petulant as Jon’s withdrawn younger self, avoiding addressing his feelings and sullenly answering a disembodied shrink’s questions.

It’s hard to see what a scene lampooning the director of Milk (a dismissive and gossipy Peter Frechette) adds to the arc of the story, aside from giving Jon a chance to rant about how his father’s legacy has been overshadowed by Harvey Milk’s. Jon has a blind date with a guy he met online (Ted Deasy), mostly to highlight how different he is from the fantasy Loverboy that Jon made him into.

Much stronger are the more grounded scenes between Jon and his friend, colleague and confidante Louise. Here too the dialogue sometimes drags, getting bogged down in thinly veiled thesis statements and debates on the nature of dreams, but these characters are so engaging and likeable that they make the “real” world of the play infinitely more entertaining than its netherworld.

Christopher Liam Moore does an amusing impression of Moscone as Jon, but very much as a goofy, puckish comic figure. When we first see him, he’s lounging around in boxers eating Chinese food, watching TV and talking back to his answering machine messages inquiring whether he’s available to introduce a Harvey Milk tribute or endorse a chocolate bar memorializing his dad. Robynn Rodriguez is down-to-earth and together as Louise, who indulges Jon but is always willing to call him on his bullshit.

There are a few great moments in the play, including a strong final image and a very funny array of auditioning ghosts for Hamlet. By and large, though, Ghost Light just feels scattered and overloaded with more ghostly visitations than A Christmas Carol. It’s a play badly in need of an exorcism.

Lorenzo Pisoni in Humor Abuse. Photo by Chris Bennion.

An import from New York, where Lorenzo Pisoni is based nowadays, Humor Abuse comes to ACT in association with Seattle Rep, which hosted the show last fall. Pisoni has played both theaters as a straight actor, delighting audiences in ACT’s 2005 production of the 17th century French comedy The Gamester.

Bart Fasbender’s set is simple: a smudged and torn, once-white curtain with a large steamer trunk in front of it, a staircase going up and away on one side, and lots of suitcases stacked in the corners of the stage. Pisoni emerges in a well-padded tux jacket, top hat and baggy checkered trousers to give his introduction, but first he has to chase down the spotlight that keeps slipping away from him. Once he staples it in place, he addresses the crowd apologetically. “This is a show about clowning, and I’m the straight man,” he says. “I’m not funny.”

That’s nonsense, of course. Pisoni is very funny indeed, and his deadpan delivery makes him even more hilarious.  But he makes the point that “I was born to be my father’s straight man,” and it’s true that when he was a little kid running around in a gorilla suit or in a miniature version of his father’s clown costume, he was always the stony-faced, serious one.

When Pisoni was a little kid in the circus with his dad, I was a not-quite-as-little kid watching him every summer with my dad. And on opening night, as he recreated routines that either he or his dad used to perform in the circus decades ago, I found that I remembered all of them remarkably well, and the way he captures his father’s clown act is uncanny. Pisoni’s been out of the circus for a long time now, working as an actor, but his clowning skills are so keen that it really shows that he learned to pratfall as soon as he learned to walk.

There’s a bit of commedia dell’arte and many astounding quick-changes where no sooner does he dive behind the trunk than he emerges inside it in a different costume. But best of all are the extended routines he learned in his childhood, whether he’s trying to carry multiple suitcases up stairs that he keeps tumbling down or simply trying to hold onto a balloon that keeps getting away from him.

As Pisoni tells it, his father was always clowning at home. He’d never bring a plate to the table without tripping over his own feet on the way. But Larry took clowning very seriously and made Lorenzo practice each trick again and again at an early age. “As soon as I could walk, I tried to run away from my parents’ circus,” Pisoni says. He talks about making his circus debut, uninvited, at the age of two, doing tricks at intermission.  His parents had to put him into the show to get him to stop distracting the patrons from buying concessions. After Bill Irwin and Geoff Hoyle left the circus, Lorenzo went under contract from ages 6 to 10 as his father’s clown partner.

He tells us about all the time he spent in the steamer trunk on hot days, cramped with other people, dummies or balloons, waiting to spring forth from it. He talks about how his complicated relationship with the circus wasn’t just hopelessly intertwined with his tricky relationship with his father, but ultimately amounted to the same thing.

Cocreated with director Erica Schmidt, the narrative is touching and often hilarious, and Pisoni tells it with remarkable self-assurance and the crisp elocution of a Shakespearean actor. Occasionally he delivers a line as if he’s a little too aware of the moment’s poignancy, but for the most part it’s superbly crafted and immaculately timed—and as a tense routine with falling sandbags demonstrates, to circus folk timing is everything. Humor Abuse may recount Pisoni’s early misadventures in the Pickles’ roofless tent, but everything about it shows a mature performer who’s truly come into his own.

Ghost Light
Through February 19
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Humor Abuse
Through February 5
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

Ghost Light: Show #1 of 2012, attended January 17.

Humor Abuse: Show #2 of 2012, attended January 18.

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