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Stop Horsing Around!

Lorenzo Pisoni never had to run away to join the circus; he was born into it. He did once try to run away from it, heading for the highway in his "footie pajamas," as he recalls in his very personal new solo show, Humor Abuse, running Off-Broadway through April 12. For two decades, however, the circus was his life. Since moving into acting, Pisoni has frequently performed Shakespeare at esteemed theatres and recently completed a run on Broadway as the central horse, Nugget, in Equus, but for now he's looking back on what it meant to grow up the son of a clown.

Pisoni's parents founded the Pickle Family Circus in 1974 in San Francisco. His father was the ringmaster and chief clown, Lorenzo Pickle; his mother was a juggler as well as the costume designer and executive director. Pisoni made his unofficial debut at age 2, when he entered the ring at intermission one day and mimicked the show's acts. Immediately he was stagestruck. "Once I started, that was it," he says, "to the point that the band wrote a song for me. Basically, I took away the intermission. And my parents realized they had to put me into the show if I was that precocious, had this need to perform. There was no stopping me, apparently. I think they tried to discourage me from performing, just to make sure, and they were very conscious of not taking advantage of me."

As he grew, acrobatics and juggling became his focus, and he absorbed lessons from the Pickle Family players. "They were all highly educated," Pisoni says. "They were first-generation circus performers, so they had a life before the circus. I learned from different people from many parts of the world. I had a Czech coach, and his type of acrobatics is very different than the Chinese coach I had and much different than the Moroccan coach. When I go to a circus now, I'll see an aerialist or acrobat and I can pretty much distinguish their nationality by the lines of their body."

The one area to which he did not gravitate was clowning, his father's domain. Pisoni realized early on that he was a born straight man. For all the Shakespeare roles he's performed, he has never been cast in any of the more clownish ones, he ruefully admits. Yet life with his father was an endless series of lessons in clown skills. Pisoni can still spontaneously trip and stumble with the best of them, and "hat moves" are second nature.

Pickle Juice

Humor Abuse began as a show that Pisoni and Jonah Hoyle, the son of a Pickle Family member, performed during their senior year at Vassar College. Erica Schmidt, co-creator and director of the current version (produced by Manhattan Theatre Club), saw it as a fellow student. That incarnation "was a series of acts with some stories in between," Pisoni recalls. "We didn't really get to flesh out all the ideas the first time around, and a couple of years ago I got in touch with Jonah and said we should remount it." Hoyle, however, was by then more a writer than a performer and suggested that Pisoni create a solo version. "My initial reaction was 'That's insane,' " says Pisoni.

Schmidt, whose many directing credits include the 2002 stage version of Debbie Does Dallas, launched Pisoni's acting career when she asked him to be in a production of Romeo and Juliet. Soon he was a nimble standout in her six-person staging of As You Like It, single-handedly performing a fight between two brothers. The New York International Fringe Festival show earned a subsequent Off-Off-Broadway run, then a stint at the Public Theater.

"One aspect of Humor Abuse is pulling the curtain back and saying, 'This is circus life,' " Pisoni says. "The idea of the title is the things that we go through to make something look effortless and funny -- willingly. Through working with Erica, it's become much more autobiographical. The show is different, more mature."

Pisoni remained a circus performer until 1999, returning to work with the Pickle Family Circus each summer while he was in college and later serving as Cirque du Soleil's ringmaster in Las Vegas for a year and a half. "From the distance of 10 years, I now start to appreciate how interesting and unique it was," he says. "Circus is a jungle gym for adults. It took me this long to realize that I should celebrate the way I grew up, not deny it."

Equus, which closed just before Humor Abuse began previews Feb. 19, presented its own challenges, such as navigating a raked stage in 9-inch metal hooves. "I had never worked that hard, physically, since I've been in New York," the actor says. "But I felt that I knew what to do in terms of making Nugget a character, because of the mask stuff I did growing up, not having any words to tell the story."

The play was timely preparation for the intensely physical challenges of his own show, in which he re-creates some of his father's stunts. It can't be easy falling off a ladder or dodging sandbags eight times a week, but the material has allowed him to understand and appreciate his upbringing and his father's uniqueness. "We try to give little pieces of the puzzle," Pisoni says, "so that by the end of the show, when I do more of my father's material, you can see what I've come to know."

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