Monday, September 26, 2016

A Little Family Business

In 1982, an extremely successful playwright and screenwriter adapted a French farce by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy with disastrous results. During my travels, I actually managed to attend two performances of Jay Presson Allen's pathetic comedy (one during the Los Angeles tryout and one in New York). The show reaped the kind of scathing reviews that bitchy queens lie for. Some snippets from the venerable Frank Rich (who was then the drama critic for The New York Times) include the following statements:
  • "It would be unjust to say that A Little Family Business, the comedy that brought Angela Lansbury back to Broadway last night, is the worst production in a poor theater season. After all, those with long memories can still recall the summer's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. So let's be fair and just say that A Little Family Business is the season's worst nonmusical play. It's definitely the thing to see once you've exhausted all the all-night movies on 42d Street."
  • "Heaven knows that A Little Family Business has received just the production it deserves. The only way it could be worse is if Herman van Veen came on to sing. Martin Charnin's direction is so coarse that, next to this play, a typical episode of I Love Lucy looks as if it had been produced by the Comédie-Française. The motley supporting cast is an insult to the venerable theatrical institution of amateur night."
  • "In a less inspired moment, [Mrs. Allen] adapted another Barillet-Gredy opus into Forty Carats in the late 1960's. Though Forty Carats did seem execrable at the time, A Little Family Business now gives us the perspective to see that it was, relatively speaking, a classic of its kind."
Angela Lansbury in a scene from 1982's A Little Family Business

When illness or death strikes the head of a small family business, the question of succession is bound to raise its head.
  • Is there someone who can instantly take over for the company's founder or driving force? 
  • Does that person actually want to shoulder so much responsibility?
  • Is there a pressing need to keep a family tradition alive?
  • Is the family business the glue that holds together a show business family or a powerful dynasty?
The 2016 Presidential election has raised all sorts of speculation about American family dynasties. From early speculations about the Clinton and Bush dynasties to the political nightmares triggered by the political ambitions of Donald Trump and his loathsome progeny, the run-up to the election has had millions worried sick about who will take over the White House.

What will the transfer of power be like? Will it be a hyperemotional crisis or a rather stoic affair? Will there be a smooth transition or a global meltdown. Without doubt, these are important questions to be asked.
  • But what if the family business involves a bunch of clowns
  • What if the family itself has long been perceived as a bunch of clowns? 
  • Can the next generation take hold of the reins while resting secure in their knowledge of who they are without being stereotyped by others?
  • Can they keep calm and carry on?
(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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As a professional, Lorenzo Pisoni's performing career has ranged from multiple Shakespearean roles to appearances on All My Children. With 20 years of circus work (in the Pickle Family Circus as well being the Ringmaster in one of Cirque du Soleil's resident shows based in Las Vegas (Mystère), Pisoni has an impressive theatrical résumé.

Having made his professional debut at the age of two, he quickly started memorizing cues and routines from the circus show in which his father, Larry (Lorenzo Pickle), co-starred with Bill Irwin (Willy the Clown) and Geoff Hoyle (Mr. Sniff).  When he was six years old, Lorenzo signed a contract with his parents' circus and became his father's clown partner.

Lorenzo Pisoni warming up the crowd prior to a performance
by the Pickle Family Circus (Photo by: Terry Lorant)

As Larry taught his son the tricks of clowning (how to stumble, fall down stairs, juggle, do a double take, and tumble) he would keep telling Lorenzo to "Do it again" until his son had worked the routine into his body and learned to own it. The seriousness with which the elder Pisoni mentored Lorenzo helped his child to build a solid appreciation for craft, precision, and the history and traditions of clowning from the early days of the commedia dell'arte to the present.

As he continued to tour with The Pickle Family Circus, the younger Pisoni had a very different experience from military brats who were constantly being relocated from one base to another. As he explains:
"I don't know many kids who not only have a first-hand knowledge of what their parents do on a day-to-day basis, but also get to see their parents enjoying what they do -- see any adults enjoying what they do. Everyone in The Pickle Family Circus was having a good time."
Larry and Lorenzo Pisoni performing with The Pickle Family Circus

Premiered in the Spring of 2009 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Pisoni toured his one-man show, Humor Abuse, for four years (including two short runs at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater). Originally planned as a history of clowning that would be presented with Jonah Hoyle (his childhood friend from The Pickle Family Circus), Humor Abuse underwent major revisions when Hoyle developed stage fright and, after living in Alaska for several years, joined the faculty of De Anza College to teach creative writing.

Pisoni then turned to an old friend from his student days at Vassar College who was able to point out that, unlike children who run away to the circus, Lorenzo ran away from the circus. Erica Schmidt also convinced Pisoni that, with Jonah out of the show, the narrative could be reshaped into a father-son story that would have a much broader appeal.

Humor Abuse was enhanced with slides that depicted Lorenzo at various stages of childhood, performing with his father as well as with a dummy his own size. Jennifer Westfeldt (who met Pisoni in 2013 while they were acting together at the Manhattan Theater Club) recalls that "It was completely incongruous to me that this straight-laced, terrific actor who looks like Clark Kent grew up juggling, flying through the air, and tap dancing in a gorilla suit! I couldn't stop asking questions."

As Lorenzo performed his father's famous "sandbag" routine without flinching, Humor Abuse moved into a rare territory that combined an adult's poignant recollections of his childhood with meticulously-planned moments of stagecraft. Throughout the show, his charisma, physical dexterity, and intelligence continued to seduce the audience into learning about the tradition of clowning. In between his numerous backflips and pratfalls, theatregoers gained a deeper awareness of why a good clown can not only make people laugh, but also make them choke back tears.

A new documentary entitled Circus Kid (which will be screened at the 2016 Mill Valley Film Festival) takes Humor Abuse one step further. The camera follows Lorenzo as he as he interviews his parents, his sister Gypsy, his godfather (Bill Irwin), and other members of The Pickle Family Circus to learn why the troupe shut down so suddenly, how he was shielded from the financial and personality problems that caused trouble backstage, and whether or not he had anything resembling a good childhood.

William Rexer with Lorenzo Pisoni (Photo by: Vasili Gavre)

Some of the interviews are designed to ferret out information about the actual mechanics of managing a small circus and what the life with a group of clowns was really like. The more serious parts, however, focus on Pisoni's questions about his childhood, since most of what he recalls are his experiences working onstage as his father's sidekick. Lorenzo's relationship with his father provides him with a unique coming of age story.

During his one-man stage show, Pisoni was able to punctuate Humor Abuse with slides of him performing as a child, as well as demonstrating many of the physical comedy routines he learned from his father. Watching him as a fully grown adult (and now a father) trying to piece together memories from his past is a fascinating process. Not only is Pisoni an extremely handsome and capable performer, he's also a mensch. As his friend, Jon Hamm (who starred in Mad Men), stresses: “Every kid wants to please his father. But not every kid had to learn how to fall down a flight of stairs in order to do that.”

* * * * * * * * *
American Conservatory Theater inaugurated its 2016-2017 season with Mike Bartlett's intellectually bracing (and often hysterically funny) political thriller, King Charles III. Written in iambic pentameter and staged on Daniel Ostling's darkly imposing unit set (which could easily accommodate many of Shakespeare's plays), this co-production with the Seattle Repertory Theatre and Shakespeare Theatre Company has been meticulously directed by David Muse in ways that expose the weaknesses of the United Kingdom's royal family in both crisis and comedic situations.

King Charles III premiered  in April 2014, long before this year's shocking Brexit vote and before Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 90th birthday. Long before the beloved monarch entered the final decade of her life, there had been plenty of speculation over whether or not Prince Charles (a/k/a The Duke of Wales) would succeed her on the throne. Now 67 years old, Charles has spent his entire life on the assumption that he would one day be crowned King. Following the death of his first wife, Diana, Princess of Wales (and his subsequent marriage to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall), there is still a question about whether he will be crowned in Westminster Abbey or pass that honor to one of his two sons: Prince William, Duke of Cambridge (born in 1982) or his younger brother, Prince Harry, a/k/a Prince Henry of Wales (born in 1984).

Charles (Robert Joy) and Camilla (Jeanne Paulsen) in a
scene from King Charles III (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Bartlett's play begins with the royal family in mourning shortly after the death of Elizabeth II. Although he has been groomed to take over the throne, Charles (Robert Joy) is a bit nervous as he meets with Prime Minister Evans (Ian Merrill Peakes) and Mark Stevens (Bradford Farwell), the Leader of the Opposition. Cognizant of his duties as a member of the royal family, Charles is acutely aware that both men are experienced political operatives.

A man who has expressed strong views on architecture, climate change, and organic farming, Charles is used to paying careful attention to detail. When asked to sign a bill which could severely impact the freedom of the press, he balks at the Prime Minister's need for urgent action, worried that he might do more harm than good by signing a bad piece of legislation. His failure to fall back on "business as usual" (based on his respect for certain legal principles) sets up a curious chain reaction. As the playwright notes: "The issue of press freedom and privacy matters to Charles very personally, so the idea that he might end up defending the press is fascinating. You can feel it oozing Shakespearean complications."

In Bartlett's play, Charles's youngest son, Prince Harry (Harry Smith), has traveled around the world, done plenty of charity work, and grown sick and tired of the stifling responsibilities of being a member of the royal family. After Harry meets an attractive young commoner at a nightclub named Jessica (Michele Beck), he finds her opinions intoxicating. Jess's ability to broaden his horizons and boost his self confidence lead Harry to wonder what it would be like to abandon his privileged lifestyle and live anonymously, like an ordinary bloke.

Prince Harry (Harry Smith) is attracted to Jess Michelle Beck)
in a scene from King Charles III (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Although Prince William (Christopher McLinden) is hesitant to push his father toward making any decisions, his wife, the former Kate Middleton (Allison Jean White), is focused on the long-term implications of who succeeds Elizabeth II. Far more decisive and aggressive than her husband, Kate devises a plan whereby Edward could force Charles to abdicate the throne in favor of her husband (and her children).

Prince William (Christopher McLinden) confront his father
(Robert Joy) in King Charles III (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Orbiting around the emotionally conflicted Charles are:
  • His blunt and horsey wife, Camilla (Jeanne Paulsen), who won't hesitate to slap one of her stepsons across the face.
  • His long-time butler, James Reiss (Dan Hiatt), who wouldn't hesitate to seek better employment with a different future king.
  • A ghost (Chiara Motley) who haunts the palace, ominously telling Charles and Edward that they will be the greatest king England has ever known.
A palace ghost delivers a message to the Prince of Wales
in a scene from King Charles III (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Though many have likened Bartlett's portrayal of Prince William and his wife to the Macbeths, I find his characterization of the conniving Kate much more in line with King Lear's power-hungry daughters, Regan and Goneril. One could equally imagine Donald Trump's offspring going after their father's power with a similarly forceful sense of righteous greed. As Charles becomes increasingly conflicted when forced to make decisions, it's easy to see him deteriorating into madness like Lear. In a recent interview, Bartlett noted that:
“The Windsors have an interesting narrative. They are the country embodied (which is a very Shakespearean idea). Shakespeare draws those metaphors, and I can’t tell you how useful doing that is in this play. The endless metaphors and parallels you can draw between the personal and the national are brilliant. The [royal family] went from being really popular after World War II to drifting out of popularity through the 1970s and 1980s. The depths of that unpopularity were in the mid-1990s, with Windsor Castle burning down and the divorce of Diana and Charles. With William, Harry, and Kate, a new generation has fallen in love with the Windsor family. You see a dramatic rise and fall with the Windsors, whose peaks and troughs are a gift for a storyteller. When you write about these specific people, you are writing about the entire country.”
Allison Jean White as the power-hungry Kate Middleton
in a scene fromKing Charles III (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With costumes by Jennifer Moeller, lighting designed by Lap Chi Chu, and original music and sound design by Mark Bennett, I found this production to be remarkably satisfying. Robert Joy's beautifully layered portrait of Charles sits astride a frothy mixture of family comedy and political backstabbing in the uppermost levels of British society. A large part of the play's success may also well be due to the style in which it is written.

“Iambic pentameter is a way of writing kings and queens that feels appropriate. If you write them speaking as we speak, it would sound as though you were mocking them," explains the playwright. "But if they speak in [blank] verse, their language has a more formal rhythm and a heightened vocabulary. Verse also compresses meaning down (you can get more meaning into three words of verse than you can in three lines of prose). ”

Robert Joy stars in King Charles III (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of King Charles III continue through October 9 at American Conservatory Theater (click here for tickets). It's a magnificent new play, full of challenges befitting a royal family.

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