I was attending the Logan Square based variety show, Vaudeville Underground one evening. A performer got up on a freestanding ladder and told stories from on high. "An interesting interlude," I thought. Next time I saw him at the same show, a month or two later, the ladder was employed once more. But this time in an entirely different manner. Here, a fast paced, well developed comedy act erupted on the floor of the Glade Memorial Hall Gym (er, I mean "Shangri-La Room.")
"Who is this guy?" one was left to wonder. Well, I got to chatting with him after the entree. A circus performer, 8th generation, who was continuing the tradition in varied environs, had moved to Chicago I found out. His name: Ottavio.
Ottavio became noted on the local scene as someone with unique talents not often witnessed. But, more than this, he was respected for his willingness to share and help others along. I can certainly attest to this. For, while I didn't get to know him particularly well, we would inevitably cross paths. He was always so personable, ready to reach out, listen to some concern, offer insight. And he asked for observations, also. Here, I discovered, was an artist on a dedicated path to growth who wanted to know what his audience thought and might provide in making his own presentations continually better. It isn't everyday you come across someone like him.
Last Friday night, February First, a tribute was held at Evanston's Actor's Gymnasium. There gathered were many of the people who had come to know him here and beyond throughout his life. A special occasion, much needed at the moment, in tribute of performance and reminiscence of story - the two things which Ottavio always loved to share of himself.
In this same auditorium, he premiered last year "A Clown Without A Circus" - his one man show. Now, twelve months later, he is no longer with us. At the age of 37 Ottavio, sadly, took his life. He is missed by so many. Yet the joy which he brought to our hearts, our lives, will long carry on to be shared just as it was this significant night.
I got up to talk at one point, as we were all invited to do. My offering was the reading of a review which I wrote at the time of the aforementioned show. I thought it aptly summed up something about how he spoke to me as an artist and even what his very life was about. Here, then, I would like to share it for your own appreciation, also, in honor of Ottavio.
"I wanna run away and join the circus!"
It's the eternal cry of every child.
But what's it like for someone who DID grow up living the circus life? In his show, A Clown Without A Circus, Ottavio Canestrelli offers us a reality check.
All one can ask of an artist (all the more so a clown) is that he honestly bare himself. In the end, this is what provides most interesting to an audience, the sharing of one's story. And, indeed, here is where the work has it's greatest value.
Ottavio is an 8th generation circus performer who toured with his family's act for two decades while growing up. As his parents grew on in years and his siblings left the circus life for other careers, he had a decision to make as to his own direction.
The show starts with him falling out of the sky. A voice asks if he remembers where he was? "Selling insurance!" he replies. But, no, the voice implores him to dig deeper. He then turns to the audience and breaks the 4th wall (thus establishing an important connection and relationship with us that proves essential in order to appreciate and care about what he has to tell). "Do you really want to know?" 'Deed we do!
Over the next hour, we are treated to stories of his experiences: from that of his first ring act (with twin brother Oreste), to how his mom and dad met, an animal act which escaped (along with a capturing effort that turned out to be a better act than the escaped monkey's typical show job), even a satire on the Nazi soldiers who forced his family into it's army employ as entertainment. Using impressionistic characterization, Ottavio brings each one of the tales to life with a believability that puts you there again as if you were watching it unfold for the first time.
Intertwined throughout it all is an expansive display of circus arts. Canestrelli shows his skills in acrobatics, falls, balancing, handstand, single trapeze, a specialized stilt which enables jumping and flips; he employs hat tricks, basic contortion with a chair, and demonstrates how the Germans might have employed their secret weapon with his "big ball". Above all comedy thrives. The final act is developed around an outstanding unsupported ladder bit.
Musical selections (many traditional or folksy in style) complement each act appropriately, helping to keep the audience entranced and well involved in each passing moment, while bringing out something more about the story being told. Such is fitting, considering the opening monologue that paints a picture of the music made from sounds of circus animals in the night.
Still, the nagging voice we first heard lingers on. Asking all of the questions which someone might of a young man who's facing life's difficult choices, it forces our protagonist to reply. Moving the plotline forward and connecting his stories, then, Ottavio attempts to justify his experience. What was good, and right, about the circus life? What is "normal"? Was he correct to move on to "selling insurance"? Is he content? These are the things with which anyone who dares to be different must frequently face and struggle through (sometimes even against) in life. One wonders whether this nag is the outside voice of a well intentioned, yet uninitiated, busybody who doesn't truly understand his perspective or the challenging voice of an inner conscience. Whichever, the answer is clear: follow your heart's desires in order to find yourself.