“A clown is funny in the circus ring, but what would be the normal reaction to opening a door at midnight and finding the same clown standing there in the moonlight?”
This scenario, posed by Lon Chaney, Sr. (a man who knew a thing or two about getting under the skin), is the central tent pole to Will Elliott’s novel The Pilo Family Circus. The story opens on a hapless young man, Jamie, narrowly avoiding crashing his car one night into a mysterious, grinning clown standing in the middle of the road, shrouded in darkness and fog.
A clown at midnight. Things never go well from there.
Currently running at the New Ohio Theatre, Godlight Theatre Company turns in a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Elliott’s phantasmagorical novel—surprising only in that the book is, well, literally insane. It involves an otherworldly nightmare circus, dwarves and giants, acrobats and fishboys, wish dust and soul crystals. Elliott wrote it under the influence of anti-psychotic drugs treating his schizophrenia and while experimenting with sleep deprivation, so let’s just say it’s a skosh on the unmoored side. But Godlight has made a name for themselves with their book-to-stage adaptations and my hat is off to them for even attempting such an out-there endeavor. Their version of Pilo is a weird, wild ride, and there’s a lot of twisted joy to be had. Unfortunately, so faithful is the adaptation that the production suffers from similar pitfalls as the novel.
The cast is a fine one. While I wanted to know/feel more about Nick Paglino’s Jamie, his performance is limber and assured, and his turn as Jamie’s doppelganger, J. J. the Clown, is gleefully, gravelly devious. Lawrence Jansen makes for an effectively intimidating Gonko, the leader of the clown posse. Brett Glass definitely impresses while navigating a number of wildly divergent characters. But really the whole cast works as a fluid ensemble in bringing this nightmare to life (special props to Gregory Konow, though, for spending almost the entire damn 90 minutes standing on stilts in the background).
The real star of the show is the design. Director Joe Tantalo shapes an impressively sparse, swirling underworld that is never quite defined and so can never be escaped. Maruti Evans’ lighting is simple and spare, but wonderfully effective, creating all sorts of shadows and chasms. And Ien DeNio’s soundscape is superb, swirling in and out between circus music and dread-inducing ambience (full disclosure: I’ve used Ien’s services in productions of my own, as well – but for the same abilities I’ve lauded here).
If there is a problem to be had with this production, then, it is that both Elliott and Tantalo, with adapter Matt Pelfrey, seem in such a rush to get to the weird stuff that the identities actually in danger are treated as an afterthought. In essence, Pilo is a Jekyll/Hyde story—upon donning his clown make-up, Jamie becomes J. J. and learns “the nicer the man, the meaner the clown,” and, not to give away too much, the entire second half of the story involves a revolt within the circus, presumably because the human sides of the other acts are desperate to be free—but the Jekylls are never that well defined. The clowns themselves seem so hell-bent on proving their creepiness that it stops resonating as such, and all of the insanity and vulgarity begin to feel monotonous. By far the most unsettling moments are at the very top, when the clowns are just figures in the thick (sometimes too thick) mist, moving slowly and inscrutably in the background, like insane clouds on the horizon.
Those images, days later, still stick with me. And for that, no matter how much depth or dynamic variety I might have felt was missing, it's a trip to the circus I don't regret.