Theater review by Jenna Scherer. New Ohio Theatre. By Matt Pelfrey. Dir. Joe Tantalo. With ensemble cast. 1hr 30mins. No intermission.
Like many people, I really don’t like clowns. This has been true since my fifth birthday party at the Ground Round, when I glimpsed Bingo the Clown’s real mouth through his greasepaint grin and realized that he wasn’t actually smiling.
Adapted from Will Elliott’s novel of the same name, The Pilo Family Circus tries to play on that primal fear of the face beneath the face, the manic giggle that’s really more like a scream. And in its first third, Matt Pelfrey’s play is appropriately menacing. Following a run-in with a red-nosed apparition, everyman Jamie (Nick Paglino) finds himself dogged by the footfalls of floppy-shoed feet. Before long, he’s yanked into a malevolent circus in another dimension that is either Hell or a Hot Topic outlet, where he comes face-to-face with his own inner It.
At this point, unfortunately, things go from B-movie creepy to B-movie dumb, as Pilo becomes a hammy, barely baked fight-for-freedom story about a rebellion fomenting within the circus. The versatile Paglino and a few of the other performers give it their all, but the edges of the cast don’t seem to act so much as declare things loudly.
Director Joe Tantalo’s stylish production relies on Maruti Evans’s lighting and Ien DeNio’s sound to conjure the circus and its terrors. But there’s too much “Look! This horrible thing is happening that you can’t actually see, but we are describing it to you!” for the audience to actually care. Ultimately, Pilo is too scared of its own dark side to freak us out the way it wants to.—Jenna Scherer