Picks and Pans Review: The Pickle Family Circus

updated 05/12/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/12/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Terry Lorant and Jon Carroll

The Pickle Family Circus never appears in big arenas. It doesn't include lions and tigers—or any animals at all, the use of animals in circuses being disdained by the Pickle founders as inhumane. There are no stars, everybody drawing the same salary, $250 a week. Yet this rather strange, semisocialist circus has turned itself into a West Coast institution since it began in 1974 as an offshoot of San Francisco's radical Mime Troupe. Performing about 200 times a year, the circus exists on various subsidies from government and private sources, ticket receipts and fees from community groups that sponsor its shows in such places as Gold Beach, Oreg. and Areata, Calif. This portrait of the circus is the work of a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Carroll, and the group's own resident photographer and juggler, Lorant. Their book seems overblown when they philosophize about the circus' all-for-one structure, which demands, among other things, that the performers themselves set up their tents and equipment. "The first principle was agreed upon:" writes Carroll, "the compartmentalization and implicit self-deceit of American life was destructive. It was everyone's duty to expose contradictions and demonstrate alternatives." Lorant's photographs, especially those of children, are charming. And the quotes from the circus members reflect a sense of affecting dedication, pride and camaraderie. Clown Bill Irwin, for instance, says, "The thing about falling down, if you do a fall and it gets a certain kind of laugh, a laugh that almost precedes rather than follows the fall, well, it's like falling on cushions of air...When they don't laugh, it's like a misspent effort, and boy, then you feel the bones hit the floor." Jeffrey Gaeto, a piano player and juggler, says, "There's a freedom of discovery and excitement and natural enthusiasm that we have as kids. The Circus brings that out again. As adults, we stuff it pretty far down. But every once in a while, that kid will start saying, 'let me out, let me play.' I like to think we give encouragement to that." (Chronicle Books, $12.95)

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