Humor Abuse (Seattle Repertory)

Posted on October 10, 2011

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Lorenzo Pisoni in Humor Abuse, Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by: Chris Bennion

The Seattle Repertory kicked off its 2011 season with Humor Abuse – a well-crafted engaging biographical production which explores one man’s search for independence, meaning and identity in the shadow of his larger than life, vaudeville-legend father and life growing up in San Francisco’s illustrious Pickle Family Circus.  Humor Abuse, written by Lorenzo Pisoni and directed by Erica Schmidt, explores the universal experience of growing up, finding oneself and making peace with imperfect parents but wisely does so by evoking empathy for young Lorenzo while avoiding syrupy melodrama.

The production captivates the audience by cleverly scattering moments of physical comedy (inciting ‘Oohs and Aahs’ and cheers from the audience) amongst more touching, sobering moments and laughter throughout, while never losing sight of the story being told.  It is an engaging and wonderfully balanced story, accessible by everyone, powered by the enthralling physicality and charisma of Lorenzo Pisoni and amazingly effective stage illusions which continued to surprise and kept the audience guessing what might come next.

Exiting the performance of Humor Abuse staring Lorenzo Pisoni (Tuesday’s With Morrie, The Great Gatsby) at the Seattle Repertory, I was reminded of why I love the theatre.  Great theatre must walk the fine line between magically whisking us away from our own lives, immersing us in the narrative of someone else, but upon later reflection cause us to re-examine our own lives, question the things we do, say and how we relate to the world around us and at the same time, keep us thoroughly entertained.  Humor Abuse does this in spades.

Lorenzo Pisoni in Humor Abuse, Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by: Chris Bennion

From the initial moment that Lorenzo Pisoni enters the stage, he connects with us.  He captivates and draws us continually inward as he viscerally relives the defining moments of his life.  He inspires us to care about the young boy, who is carted onstage inside a steamer trunk, his only companions being six pinholes of light, a life-size dummy of himself and the balloons which threaten to pop due to the heat.  Projecting real photos from his life on the tattered curtain behind him effectively tugs at your heartstrings, investing us in this life, his family and his search for identity.  Though our life experiences may be different, remove the pratfalls, face makeup, gorilla suit, plastic banana and the audience understands that his story is but a reflection of our own story.

Lorenzo, with the help of talented direction, stage management, sound and lighting behind the scenes supporting cast, negotiates the complexity and fragility of family life with all the grace of…well, of a classically trained acrobat.  Lorenzo Pisoni’s story delightfully unfolds before us like a rare but exhilarating honest therapy session, where we play the part of the counselor.  We are mesmerized as he crafts images from his past before us that at times both shock and inspire us.  He does not coerce us but draws us in until we discover that we care about the plight of the two-year old who dresses up as a gorilla to perform before a crowd of strangers.  We delight alongside him at the joy of performing with his father and our heart aches for the boy suddenly found without a father and yet literally steps into his father’s shoes, performing his father’s act for years.

Lorenzo Pisoni in Humor Abuse, Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by: Chris Bennion

The audience connects with him because we related to his struggle for finding his own identity, apart from family, friends or a father.  His search takes him far from his family, but inevitably his quest comes full circle.  It’s the realization that we are who we are and no amount of traveling will change that.  When Lorenzo comes home, he does so on his own terms, as a man and not a child.  The father that he never really knew becomes a bit more known, but only after walking the prerequisite mile in his father’s shoes, no doubt oversized and red.  It is there that he begins to know his father and understand why his father was tough on him.  The skills and discipline which he so rigorously drilled into Lorenzo while a child are the talents that would enable him to become his own man, make his way in this world and one day, would empower him to find his way home.

Resolving ‘father conflicts’ is an experience common to all and the universal choice we are each faced with is, whether we continue to lament a father who is not the person we want him to be OR do we just accept him and love him as the imperfect person that he is?  In choosing to accept him, like Lorenzo, we may find a new love and passion for our own life and who we are.  Lorenzo wisely spares us the overly maudlin sympathies, but we implicitly understand that they too are part of his story.  Anyone who grew up in a family understands the joys and pains associated with that.

For a fun and nostalgic but poignant trip back to the seemingly simpler childhood days of circuses, pancakes and laughter, check out Humor Abuse playing at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, playing through Oct 23, 2001 with performances Wednesday – Sunday @ 7:30pm with select matinees at 2pm. For more information, you can go to www.seattlerep.org.

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