Bill Forchion is an accomplished circus performer, a veteran of Cirque du Soleil, and Ringling Brothers. He’s also a real charmer, with a smile the size of a big top and the stage persona of an overgrown kid who’s eager to please.
But Forchion knows that life is more than just a circus act. And he investigates what life is all about from a clown’s perspective in Billosophy: Life, Circus, Death, his show at this year’s Fringe Festival.
Clad in a red pinstripe t-shirt and matching nightcap, with a bulbous red nose, lips painted black and white, and the most outrageous, outsized shoes you’ve ever seen, Forchion recounts how watching jugglers on TV talk shows led him to a lifetime of making people laugh. But he came to recognize that injuries – to oneself, to a fellow performer, or even an audience member – are a frequent peril of circus life. “Circus performers deal with death every day,” he notes, adding that “every day is an exercise in trust, in consistency, in confidence.”
As he recounts the times danger and death have touched him – including a co-worker’s injury and a friend’s death from cancer – he treats each tragedy as a test to embolden himself. “If I am in control,” he comes to believe, “death won’t suck me into the void.”
Forchion deals with this heady subject matter in a comical way. He even stages a mock funeral for himself that gets more and more absurd. You can’t help smiling at Forchion, even as his show takes darker turns. And it seems like he always has some new prop to pull out of the oversize trunk that sits at center stage. (The set, with a series of boxes serving as the proscenium, is the same one used in another Fringe show, Spherus.)
Forchion is an excellent performer, but some parts of Billosophy could use more polish. He frequently gasped for breath while telling stories, still exhausted from running around the stage a few moments earlier. (I wished I had a glass of water to offer him.) And some of his stories – such as an anecdote about a childhood acrobatic exercise that went awry – are hard to follow because he spends more time acting the stories out with mime than actually explaining them with words.
His transitions from comedy to seriousness can be problematic. When he told about a fellow Cirque du Soleil performer getting injured, many audience members laughed, as if they weren’t sure he was serious. Perhaps Director Peter Gould could add some music or lighting to set these sections apart.
I wish we’d seen more of the juggling and acrobatic routines Bill Forchion has used to delight audiences around the world. But I’ll settle for Forchion the philosopher, one that tries to find some deeper meaning in the impulse to make the world laugh.
While watching Billosophy, I was reminded of the classic episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show where the characters grapple with the death of Chuckles the Clown. At one point in that episode, Lou Grant observes “We laugh at death because we know death will have the last laugh on us.”
That’s true. And in Billosophy, it’s Bill Forchion – and his willing audience – that does the laughing.
Running Time: 65 minutes, with no intermission.
Billosophy: Life, Circus, Death runs through September 24, 2016 at The 2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival performing at Philadelphia School of Circus Arts – 5904 Greene Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 413 1318, or purchase them online.