Thursday, February 14, 2013

“The Pilo Family Circus” - Where Horror and Despair Brilliantly Walk Hand-In-Hand

By Judd Hollander
Photos: Sean Dooley

Lawrence Jansen as
Gonko The Clown
Godlight Theatre Company goes for a wild run to the dark side with their unsettling and rather macabre presentation of The Pilo Family Circus. Based on the novel by Will Elliott and powerfully adapted by Matt Pelfrey, the play chronicles the journey of Jamie (Nick Paglino), a man in a dead end job who, after nearly running down a mysterious figure one dark night, finds to his surprise that said person is actually a circus clown-- complete with makeup, costume, clown shoes and a balloon--named Gonko (Lawrence Jansen). Gonko's words, however, are anything but welcoming. Seeing something special in Jamie, Gonko presents him with a gift before vanishing. Soon Jamie begins to have strange dreams about the clown and others like him; dreams which begin to manifest themselves in reality. Not long after, Jamie and his roommate and fellow slacker Steve (Craig Peterson) are kidnapped by Gonko and his crew and taken to a sort of surreal location in another dimension where the clowns have their home base - the strange and faction-divided Pilo Family Circus. A place complete with fortune tellers, magicians, acrobats and other circus performers.

The circus is run by the feuding Pilo brothers - Kurt (Gregory Konow) a being over 10 feet tall, and George, a tiny marionette who's always accompanied by his mild-mannered accountant, Roger (Brett Glass). The circus often sets up shop in the real world, luring unsuspecting costumers into see their various routines. Ones which are not at all what the uninitiated expect. Initially Jamie resists becoming a part of this clown entourage, first trying desperately to wake up from what he considers to a dream, and later trying to escape from wherever he is, but Gonko and his cronies have other ideas. Soon Jamie finds himself being transformed into the evil clown JJ, who becomes even more terrifying than Gonko and his crew expect, and who would like nothing better than to destroy all traces of Jamie's existence.

The play presents a fascinating look at the dark side of human nature and the monsters hidden deep in one's soul and just beyond the warmth of the bedroom nightlight, waiting patiently in the darkness. As JJ becomes ever stronger and Jamie learns his connection to the circus stretches much further into his past than he ever realized, the story becomes not so much a battle between good and evil but rather a bleak look at the not-so-innocent trying to survive in world gone mad. It's a place where freedom is taboo, where everyone suffers and evil can only be temporarily held in abeyance, but never totally destroyed or defeated. Especially not by the faint, flickering light of hope occasionally trying to illuminate the darkness.

Director Joe Tantalo should be especially commended for staging the story with just enough elements to give it a familiar circus feel, yet at the same time keeping things dark enough to allow the horror of the unexpected and unexplained to come through full force. He also nicely handles the smaller moments of the piece. Such as the yin and yang relationship of the feuding Pilo brothers; and the marriage between one of the clowns and a plant, something which is far more tragic than funny; guiding these instances with the same even hand used when presenting the overt sexual outbursts that spew forth from several of the circus inhabitant's mouths.

Paglino makes for an interesting if not totally relatable Jamie. A man who used to drift through life, he finds himself longing for the monotony of his former existence now that it's been taken from him. Though the more things change, the more they ultimately stay the same, as he eventually finds out.

Michael Shimkin as Goshy the Clown
Gregory Konow as Kurt Pilo
and Nick Paglino as Jamie
Jansen is great as Gonko, with Chris Cipriano, Jarrod Zayas and Michael Shimkin all working well as his demented sidekicks. Having no real grounding in reality, these fellows are free to be as over the top and as evil as they need. Which, given the circumstances presented, ring totally true. Other memorable turns come from Dre Davis as the mysterious fortune teller; Glass as a half-man, half-fish creature; and Michael Tranzilli as the stalwart "oldster" clown Winston, who just may hold the key to Jamie's escape. Special mention must also go to Konow for effortlessly standing on some rather large stilts for most of the show.

The costumes by Orli Nativ are wonderful to look at, especially the clown outfits. All of which are nicely bright and garish, as befitting the characters in question. The lighting and sound effects, by Maruti Evans and Ien DeNio respectively, are also superb.

Definitely not for the faint of heart, or for young children prone to nightmares, The Pilo Family Circus looks at the darkness of the soul from the outside in, with Godlight taking the raw materials present and ramming them home for maximum effect.

The Pilo Family Circus

Featuring: Nick Paglino (Jamie/JJ the Clown), Lawrence Jansen (Gonko the Clown), Michael Tranzilli (Winston the Clown), Chris Cipriano (Rufshod the Clown), Jarrod Zayas (Doopy the Clown), Michael Shimkin (Goshy the Clown), Gregory Konow (Kurt Pilo), Brett Glass (Richard/George Pilo and Roger the Accountant/Mugabo the Magician/Fishboy/Carnie), Craig Peterson (Steve/Sven the Acrobat), Dre Davis (Svetlana/Enzo the Acrobat/Shalice/Carnie), Jenny Stulberg (Randolph the Acrobat/Carnie)

Lighting Design: Maruti Evans
Fight Choreography: Rick Sordelet
Masks: Brendan Tay and the Puppet Kitchen
Production Stage Manager: Megan Miller-McKeever
Press Rep: David Gibbs/DARR Publicity
Choreography: Maiysha Cade + Michael Blackmon
Sound Design: Ien DeNio
Costume Design: Orli Nativ
Dramaturg: Christina Hurtado-Pierson

Presented by The New Oho Theatre
154 Christopher Street
Tickets: 212-868-4444 or
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission
Closes: February 23, 2013

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