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How Lorenzo Pisoni crafts farce's pratfalls
There's been an abundance of elegance on Broadway recently—think of the exquisite ballets of An American in Paris and the regal bearing of both Anna and the King—but the Roundabout's revival of Michael Frayn's 1982 backstage farce Noises Off brings something entirely different to the table: drunken, pants-falling-down, gut-splitting, door-slamming pratfalls. We're talking beloved actors (the cast includes Andrea Martin, Campbell Scott, Megan Hilty, and Tracee Chimo) rolling around on stage in compromising positions, crashing through scenery, and tossing sardines and axes with Stooge-like precision.
Behind the inspired lunacy is a handsome and talented actor who doesn't even appear on stage in this production. Lorenzo Pisoni, whose résumé includes Broadway credits and Shakespeare in the Park, is listed as the show's "Comic Stunt Coordinator." Though Pisoni claims he doesn't even know what the title means, it means this: When you're howling with laughter at an over-the-top pratfall, you have him to thank.
So how does one go from speaking the words of the Bard to choreographing a backward, pants-less tumble down the stairs? It helps if you grew up in the circus.
"I was raised on physical comedy," explains Pisoni, whose dad Larry Pisoni founded the influential Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco with legendary clown Bill Irwin during the 1970s. "I went to my first clown show when I was two weeks old, and the first movie I ever saw was Buster Keaton's Seven Chances. I love this kind of comedy." As soon as he could walk, Pisoni joined his older sister Gypsy as part of the show, first performing with the Pickles at the ripe old age of two.
However, after 20 years of juggling, flipping, and wearing an ape suit, Pisoni decided to retire from the circus and head east to conquer the New York stage. "I denied my circus past," he says. "But I did things that were very physical along the way, like Equus." (He played the horse Nugget in the 2008 revival starring Daniel Radcliffe.)
It was an offhand conversation with fellow actor David Furr during their 2013 run in Manhattan Theater Club's The Explorer's Club that brought Pisoni to the attention of Noises Off director Jeremy Herrin, who was taking about as far a turn as possible from last's year's stately historical epic Wolf Hall.
"David told me he would be playing Garry, [a lovelorn leading man who can't quite finish a thought when he's speaking], and I said, just as a friend, 'If you need help falling down the stairs, I'd be glad to help,'" recalls Pisoni. Word got back to Herrin, who brought in Pisoni and his bag of circus tricks to work with the entire cast on their falls, flops, and other gravitational challenges.
In a production in which scenes from the same fake play (the hilariously terrible Nothing On) are repeated three times from three different viewpoints, each time with the cast getting angrier, drunker, and more confused, each bit of business has to be choreographed with absolute precision. One false move, and the whole thing can fall apart.
But for Pisoni, the primary concern was making sure the cast of nine, who he says were game for anything, no matter how embarrassing and crazy, remained in one piece through eight shows a week. "Jeremy wanted nothing less than total destruction for some of the stunts, so there were some bruises during rehearsals and some icing down after," Pisoni says. "But we're very clear that safety comes first. I kept telling the cast, 'We can't choreograph anything for Tuesday night; we have to choreograph it for Sunday matinee."
Though his contribution to Noises Off came about as almost a lark, fate might have played just a teensy part. After all, Furr wasn't his only Explorer's Club cast-mate with a connection to the farce: Carson Elrod appeared in the 2002 Broadway revival. In addition, Pisoni's sister (and fellow child performer) Gypsy Snider created the circus elements for Diane Paulus's recent revival of Pippin—starring none other than Noises Off's Andrea Martin on a trapeze.
But one final link truly makes this convergence of talent and text seem set in the stars: "There was a production of Noises Off in the early '80s at the Marin Theatre Company, and my father designed the stair fall," Pisoni says. And who did the circus legend use as his guinea pig to test out the stunt? His young son, Lorenzo.
Marisa Cohen is a freelance writer in New York who can be heard singing show tunes with her two daughters at all hours of the day.
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: The cast of Noises Off.