The New Pickle Circus clowns around
By Bruce Robinson
“Circus is one of those things that happens everywhere,” says Jeff Razz. “It just does. I traveled to the north of Alaska, and the Yu’pik Eskimos have a long tradition of women juggling rocks and singing songs to put their children to sleep.”
On the Danish island of Samso, young girls chant the names of the boys they like while juggling, and the one who is able to keep juggling the longest gets to claim her favorite boy, “at least that’s what this woman told me,” Razz says. “She was about 60 and she could still juggle pretty well.
“She got pissed when I could juggle better than she could.” Well, he probably practices more. As one of the featured performers with the New Pickle Circus–half clown, half acrobat, and the rest a mixture of actor, dancer, and stage manager–Razz exercises his skills constantly as part of an eight-member company that stages more than 100 shows a year, while also featuring him in a clowning duo that does another 30 to 40 independent dates.
The company, a reorganized version of the acclaimed Pickle Family Circus that began 20 years ago as an offshoot of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, remains based in San Francisco and is unusual in the way it spotlights its clowns, including such illustrious alumni as Bill Irwin, Geoff Hoyle, and circus founder Larry Pisoni. In the traditional American-style big top, a la Barnum and Bailey, “the pecking order begins with aerialists and animal acts,” Razz explains, “and at the bottom, somewhere below tiger poop, is the clown. It is not a very favored position.”
In the new Pickle production, by contrast, the entire show revolves around two clowns, Raz and Pino, a.k.a. Razz and Diane Wasnak. “They really hold it together and keep the storyline moving,” acknowledges Sam Payne, one of the six acrobats in the troupe.
Uh, storyline? In a circus?
“That’s part of a whole revolution that circus has undergone in the last 20 years in Europe where the one-ring circuses have persisted, ” Payne elaborates. “They started weaving a storyline into the circus and found that the audience really liked it. It brought a whole new way of thinking about circuses into the fore. We’re in the middle of people starting to experiment with the circus as an art form.”
In “Jump Cuts! Take Two,” subtitled “The Circus Goes to the Movies,” the three-sentence “plot” finds the two clowns separated from their tour group at Mon-U-Mental Studios and locked inside after-hours. In the ensuing “clown-created chaos,” the performers “leap, tumble, and dive” through various familiar film genres: mystery, Western, musical, romance, and adventure.
Running through it all, and further animating the proceedings, is a lively original score, composed by musical director Jeffrey Gaeto and played by a versatile four-man band that includes Rohnert Park resident Dale Gutridge. “Each piece tries to capture the mood of the particular act, and from there we have freedom to improvise,” Gutridge says. Keeping at least one eye on the stage at all times, he switches dexterously among a trunk-full of instruments: trumpet, flugelhorn, flute, alto sax, and keyboards. “I juggle, too,” he jokes.
But juggling is just part of the action. Pickle circuses are known for their emphasis on movement, both the choreography of artistic director Tandy Beal and the precise coaching of acrobatics instructor Lu Yi, who brings decades of experience with world-renowned troupes of Chinese acrobats to the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, a unique training school that shares a home base in the Haight with the New Pickle Circus.
Observes Payne: “You get good choreography and good acrobatics, and the combinations start to get really interesting and unusual.”
Some acts emerge as a creative synthesis of each participant’s skills. Razz recalls the origins of a scene in which the diminutive Wasnak appears as a small baby. “I don’t remember who thought up the idea, but it began with ‘What if Diane never touches the ground?’ Lu Yi said, ‘Great, that’s something I can work with,’ and started thinking of all the tricks we could do where she never touches the ground.
“The director was putting it in a framework where it would work, and Diane and I were thinking of the comic possibilities.”
The combination of clowning and acrobatics is uncommon among contemporary circus performers, Razz says, but not historically. “If I were in Shakespeare’s company, it would have been expected. In commedia dell’arte, it would be expected.”
It also makes for a full family attraction. “It’s very rare that there’s an entertainment these days that a whole family actually enjoys together,” Razz adds. “Advertisers divide the world up into demographics, and entertainment gets sliced up into these little slices. But circus has physical performance, which has a broad-based appeal.
“Before Baywatch, it was the most watched entertainment around the world.”
The New Pickle Circus brings “Jump Cuts!” to the Luther Burbank Center for two shows, at 2 and 7 p.m., on Saturday, Jan. 13. Tickets are $14-18 for adults, $12-10 for seniors and children. 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. 546-3600.
From the Jan. 4-10, 1996 issue of The Sonoma County Independent
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