“This is a one-man show,” announces Lorenzo Pisoni, star and co-creator of Humor Abuse, shortly after taking the stage and pinning down a pesky wandering spotlight. He pauses before admitting, “And I’m the straight man.”
That wryly observed, gently self-deprecating joke captures the essence of Pisoni’s autobiographical show, which he co-created with Erica Schmidt and is on stage at Seattle Repertory Theatre through Oct. 23. But it also undersells the range of Humor Abuse, which exists comfortably in the spheres of both laughter and pain, as its title suggests.
A mix of pantomime, acrobatics, clowning and storytelling, Humor Abuse features Pisoni relaying his experiences as part of his parents’ renowned Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco. Pisoni was literally raised in the circus, donning a gorilla suit at age two and scarcely looking back throughout his adolescence, eventually becoming his father’s partner in clowning at the ripe old age of six.
The specter of Pisoni’s father, Larry, is writ large across the show. Pisoni explains his dad was serious about being funny while he himself just wanted to be taken seriously. And yet, Pisoni essentially took over the family business before he was even a teenager, becoming like his father whether he wanted to or not. A poignant early moment in the show features Pisoni playing his father, with a life-size puppet acting as his childhood self. The caring but controlling pantomime is a marvelous piece of visual storytelling that tells you all you need to know about Pisoni’s relationship with his dad.
There’s certainly a sense that Pisoni is exorcising some emotional difficulties with Humor Abuse, which originated in 2009 at the Manhattan Theatre Club. And yet the show strikes a precise melancholy chord that manages to avoid bitterness or outright anger.
That twinge of sadness never quite dissipates, and strengthens, rather than distracts from the physical comedy, which features Pisoni performing routines both original and inspired by his father. There are pratfalls on a steep flight of stars, troubles with balloons that won’t stay put and a daring dive from a tall ladder that goes awry.
Pisoni and Schmidt, who directs the proceedings with an impeccable sense of pacing (not a minute of the intermission-less 80 minutes is wasted), have crafted a production that combines the emotional intimacy of deep family secrets being shared with the thrilling element of stage spectacle. That Humor Abuse doesn’t come apart at the seams, rendered incoherent by thematic schizophrenia is a testament to the ability of the pair to develop a precise tone of playful melancholia and Pisoni’s ability to step into that mood night after night.
Humor Abuse is on stage Wednesdays through Sundays through Oct. 23 at Seattle Rep. Tickets are available for purchase online.