Clown for a New Day

Clown for a New Day
Dagwood might make it in today's emasculated circus

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Sadness of the Passage of Time ... A Pickle Family Circus Alumni Returns to San Francisco

Lorenzo Pisoni in Humor Abuse at the American Conservatory Theatre, about his days growing up in the Pickle Family Circus. Courtesy photo

Only seems like yesterday (and how many times before have you spoken or heard that phrase?), when I was discovering a delightfully quirky new troupe of acrobats and comedians at Norse Auditorium in San Francisco -- called the Pickle Family Circus, probably the first "circus" ever not to feature a single performing animal.

They went on locally to enjoy maybe a dozen good years, sometimes touring east, never under the tent that founder Larry Pisoni had all along dreamed of having.

In fact, they might have, with less political stridency and more money, turned themselves into the Big Apple Circus of the west.

Might have. So many "might haves" fill up a life. What is left of the Pickle legacy is essentially in glamorous ruins. Nothing in San Francisco, after all, is not glamorous, even the homeless, right? What lingers on is a so-called "circus school" that earns big bucks for the people who run it and teach locals with lots of $ some basic skills and how to become professional performers, which almost never happens. Far away from the city, Gypsy Snyder, daughter of PFC co-founder Peggy, has made something of a name for herself producing take-note fringe shows, such as the critical darling among the theatre set, Traces. (I found it charmingly inventive, if a tad too low key.)

Another dubious residual that lingers on in Bagdad by the Bay is the PC scent of aging Pickles and their acolytes, who, when questioned, rail against animal acts and a grossly distorted history of women in circus rings being confined to sexy prop assistants, much of which gets picked up by media outlets sympathetic to such-ill founded nonsense.

Larry Pisoni himself now teaches drama up in Seattle. His son, Lorenzo, is touring his own stage show, Humor Abuse, about growing up a Pickle, currently playing at the American Conservatory Theatre, where it landed a loving notice from the San Francisco Examiner, calling it "a tender tribute to his irascible, and at times very difficult, father."

Described by reviewer Jean Schiffman as "a wonderful sampling of routines such as juggling and pratfalls, with lots of the latter, each funnier than the last" the piece is also not afraid to slow down in spots "when Pisoni gently, and without rancor, muses upon his unknowable father's idiosyncrasies." Sharing his own lingering sadness with the audience, Pisoni imagines having a talk with his father that never took place, in which he would have asked him, "Why are you always so sad?"

The stage piece is said to have toured "all over the country in recent years," finally arriving in the city that gave birth to the Pickle Family Circus back in 1974. Think of that: Nearly forty years ago! May I shed a tender tear or two?

I kind of remember the kid, dutifully poking about in his dad's shadows, when all the Pickles were hardly more than kids themselves, having fun putting on a show in a humble enclosure marked by a sidewall. A charming afternoon of innocent ambition under sunny Bay Area skies. And even while I was watching the shows, I never imagined a spectacular future. Maybe that was a part of its unique charm and ambiance. For me, it landed my only byline in, of all papers, The Christian Scientist Monitor. In Monitor land, I too had no future.

But, oh, the tender sweet Pickle memories fill me with a sadness for the inevitable passage of time. Circus in slow motion. Laid back jazz scoring. Very funny clowning.

I'm happy for Lorenzo and Gypsy. I'm glad they both made it out of San Francisco. It's a place you need to make it out of, as soon as you can.

And I might have to go back there, just across the bay, just to see the kid on the stage talking about days around a circus that once challenged my own definitions of "circus."

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