We are visiting a Northern Italian city called Como. Our primary activity there is taking long but casual walks to check out the surroundings. It is on one of these excursions that we spot a large billboard by the side of the road, a pasteboard advertisement for the Togni Brothers Circus. (For “gn”, read “ny”.)
We like small circuses. We are determined to go.
I do not remember how we got tickets, but I recall insisting on the “best available.” Which we received. We would be sitting Second Row, Center.
On the night of the performance, it is raining quite heavily. "Downpour" would not be an exaggeration. But the inclement weather in no way inhibits our enthusiasm.
We like small circuses.
What we did not know, however, and discovered only afterwards – once again, I do not recall how – was that days before the performance we were attending, the Togni Brothers had had a familial falling out and the brothers had split up, the departing Togni taking several of the circus’s acts with him when he left. It was only during the performance that we discovered exactly which acts those were.
We enter through the flipped-up flap of the deteriorating circus tent, and are ushered to our seats. We are indeed sitting Dead Center, two rows from the circus’s diminutive single ring. As it turns out, however, there is nobody sitting anywhere behind us. Maybe because of the inclement weather, or maybe due to reasons we were at the time unaware of, there are about twenty people in attendance.
All of them seated in the first two rows.
Looking around, we take note but are unfazed by the rainwater cascading down through the numerous holes in the top of tent. For us, threadbare equals charm.
During a pre-show moment of reverie and repose – “Look at us! We’re at a little Italian circus!” – suddenly, and without warning, a large chimpanzee wearing a tuxedo jacket and a diaper vaults unceremoniously onto my lap, draping a hairy, simian arm around my shoulder.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had a large chimpanzee jump into your lap, but, one, they are quite heavy, two, any wild animal landing in your lap can be startling, and three, I can now tell you from personal experience, the impeccable formalwear notwithstanding, those chimpanzees really smell. And, as it is now sitting in my lap, its dirty sweat-sock aroma is quickly being transferred to me.
The point of the dolled-up chimpanzee is for some enterprising photographer, partnered with a monkey owner, to take your picture with a primate in your lap, and then, sell it to you in a cardboard frame as you leave. When I indicate as best I can, speaking no Italian, that I am uninterested in a commemorative snapshot of this unexpected man-monkey encounter, the chimp is hastily whisked away. Though its stench, unfortunately, remains behind.
Finally, the lights go down, and the performance begins. It is only then it becomes apparent that the Togni brother who had taken off had absconded with the troupe’s most gifted performers, leaving rookies, castoffs and also-rans to delight us on that blustery, winter night.
I cannot explain why I find extreme incompetence hilarious. But I do. Having bombed myself on occasion as a standup comedian, I try hard to be respectful of their ineptitude, my deferential efforts bringing tear-inducing anguish to my lower lip, which I am required to bite hard, to keep from exploding into hysterics. Nothing, however, can keep my body from quaking with hilarity. And my wife is not far behind.
Did I mention we like small circuses? Well we do. Small circuses – our all-time favorite being The Pickle Family Circus out of San Francisco – make up in talent and intimacy what they lack in big-budget spectacularity.
European circuses are world famous. As a child, I sat in wonder before my TV set, enthralled by the flawless performances of jugglers, acrobats, bear acts and unicyclists that the great impresario Ed Sullivan imported from “The Continent” for his “really big shew.”
Unfortunately, it would be otherwise on that stormy Italian night, watching the acts the departed Togni brother had chosen, wisely, to leave behind.
Maybe it was the weather, the thunderclaps and lightning throwing man and beast precipitously off their games. Maybe it was just an “off” night. Maybe these were novices or rarely used bench players thrown prematurely into the spotlight. But…
The jugglers drop everything they juggle.
The miniature ponies balk nervously at rearing up and resting their fore-hooves on the pony in front of them, forming a hopping chain of two-legged ponies.
The trained poodles prove equally stubborn, yapping uncontrollably and refusing to dance.
The girl twirling sixteen hula hoops smiles gamely, as the four bottom hoops first slow, and then circle clankingly to the sawdust-covered floor.
The acrobat, back-flipping up from the teeder-todder, lands awkwardly on his partner’s shoulders, sending a three-high stack of acrobats crashing ignominiously to the ground.
The tightrope walker, after two uncertain steps on the high wire, loses his balance and cannonballs into the net.
The most talented participant of the evening turned out to be the monkey. Whom I did not appreciate at the time.
The finale is earns a smattering of applause. And then we left.
We still like small circuses.
But we will not be returning to this one.