Big-Top Horror

Don’t be fooled by the title: The Pilo Family Circus is by no means a show for children. It’s based on a novel of horror fiction by Australian Will Elliott. Whether Matt Pelfrey’s stage adaptation is faithful, only those who’ve read the book can judge. But if you think of “family” in the title as referring to a mob organization, and you throw in comic-book characters—not those featuring Donald or Daffy Duck, but the dark, sinister kind, with distorted visages and evil cackling—you’ll have an approximation of the tone of the Godlight Theatre Company production. The story might be lifted from—and belongs in—a comic book, in spite of higher-brow references to Tod Browning’s Freaks and Robert Louis Stevenson. An earnest and likable Nick Paglino as Jamie, a meek and aimless guy in his 20s, begins the tale, relating that he was found wandering the streets in a clown costume. Pretty quickly his adventures are seen in flashback. Jamie, along with his roommate, the overbearing Steve (Craig Peterson), was kidnapped in a home invasion by circus clowns (in distinctive, differentiating costumes, by Orli Nativ, and masks, by Brendan Yi-Fu Tay).

The ringleader of the clowns is the green-haired Gonko, played by Lawrence Jansen with a voice that starts as Ed Wynn and modulates to Jimmy Durante and then adds a layer of thug. Gonko and his cohorts (Chris Cipriano, Jarrod Zayas, and Michael Shimkin) are only minions to the Pilo brothers, who own the circus. The Pilos are George, suited but menacing, and played by a marionette (skillfully operated and voiced by Brett Glass), and Kurt, played by Gregory Kondow on stilts in a black cassock that apparently comes from Big and Tall, Taller, Tallest. He holds a very high wooden cross.

But even the Pilos aren’t in charge. “Spooky powers” are the ones who really run things, and “they live in a very hot place.” And what do the circus acts get for their obedience? The use of “wish powder,” which grants almost anything they want, if it’s OK with the spooky powers.

Jamie hopes to escape, but can’t, according to fortune teller Shalice, because he’s “in another dimension.” Or, as Steve puts it, “It’s like Alice in Wonderland, bro, only way more twisted.” Jamie is slowly pulled into a nightmare. Trapped in the circus, he attends a clown wedding, discovers a splinter rebellion against the Pilos, and, most important, battles himself. When greasepaint is applied to half his face, his personality splits à la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: half of him becomes the evil clown JJ.

Directed with verve by Joe Tantalo, the show is designed within an inch of its life—and frequently several yards beyond. Maruti Evans creates some spectacular lighting, especially with backlights and bulbs on four strings descending from the flies. Using primarily white and red, he achieves the garishness of film noir with ease, from the opening moments when Paglino stands in a pool of light amid smoke and silhouette, throughout the wearying story. (To be sure, there are a few glimmers of humor, as when Gonko declares that the resistant Jamie is a clown. Jamie protests, “That’s just it. I’m not! I’m a concierge. I have a BA in theater.”)

Neither the script nor the sound design, however, helps the actors. Broadly played, the characters growl, snarl, whoop, guffaw, shriek, and shout at one another. When, at the last, Paglino stands and recites his prelude a second time, it’s a relief to hear a normal voice. One longs to see Paglino as a real character rather than a cartoon. It’s possible the other actors playing clowns hold as much promise—at least they manage to distinguish their characters vocally—but it’s impossible to know.

Ien Denio’s sound design starts well enough, incorporating such appropriate sources as a midway pinball machine, calliope, and even a brief passage from Franz von Suppé’s “Poet and Peasant Overture,” de rigueur for a circus show. But as the evening barrels on, it becomes relentless. It seems every line is punctuated by a percussive bang, zing, clang, or dong, or some other noise. When Shalice holds up an imaginary crystal ball for Jamie to see his grim future, in an echo of It’s a Wonderful Life, we hear the sound of a balloon squeaking. The sum effect is of being trapped inside a funhouse, with precious little fun.

Photos by Sean Dooley

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