Don't be surprised if a rather odd-looking family, loaded down with chairs, barbecue and ice chest, straggles into Make*A*Circus' latest theatrical circus show and takes the best seats--right inside the ring.
It won't be long until, with a click of their remote control, Uncle Al, Grandma Zuca and all the rest of the lazy Zucchini family are magically converted from lazy couch potatoes into clowning, juggling, acrobatic entertainers.
It's all part of "When Zucchinis Fly," a children-friendly combination of theatrical comedy, circus skills and audience participation, presented by San Francisco's popular, one-ring Make*A*Circus. Celebrating its 25th year, the company will tour several Southland outdoor venues, beginning Saturday at El Toro Park in Lake Forest.
"It's about the transformative nature of circus," said director Joan Mankin, a professional clown and actor who has performed with both the Pickle Family Circus and the San Francisco Mime Troupe.
"This kind of crazy extended Zucchini family" gets restless waiting for the show to start, "until their little girl pokes her head through the curtain and starts to do a few [simple] acrobatic tricks.
"Then all the people in the family feel themselves drawn to the other side of the backdrop to take part in the circus themselves. Their acts change who they are."
The comedy unfolds without any words spoken, Mankin said, but there is a message: "Rather than sitting back and waiting for things to happen, it's about throwing yourself into something, undertaking things that seem to be impossible to do and doing them."
When the hourlong comedy is over, and the Zucchini family--acrobats Ottavio Canestrelli and Dawn Smith, aerialist Shelly Kastner, clown Sara Moore, juggler Robert Hartman and slack-rope walker Elizabeth Clark--have tumbled and juggled and leapt through the air, the show isn't even half over.
Now it's the audience's turn to get into the act. Anyone with an itch to perform, young and old, can take 30-minute workshops in simple stilt-walking, juggling, clowning and acrobatic skills conducted by the circus members, and then use what they've learned in a brand-new, 40-minute second show. There's a part for everyone in artistic director Dan Mankin's comedy spoof, crafted around several of opera's most familiar arias, from Bizet to Wagner.
Mankin noted that theatrical circuses, sans animals, have gained in popularity with the advent of the astonishing, high-tech Cirque du Soleil, but Make*A*Circus doesn't plan to change its trademark style--cozy and low-tech.
"Cirque du Soleil is definitely awe-inspiring in the scope of its technology and feats," Mankin said. "Make*A*Circus is user-friendly. It's inviting and it says to kids, 'You can take part in this.' "
Canestrelli, who plays weird Uncle Al, has circus in his blood. He comes from eight generations of circus artists who began performing in England and in the former Czechoslovakia, before the family made its way to the United States.
"We've all been acrobats, specializing in balancing," he said.
His mother and his 72-year-old father, who was part of the Ringling Bros. circus in the '50s, still perform. Canestrelli will be doing one of the family's specialties, the "free-standing ladder, a really ancient circus trick that's about as old as circus itself. It's a straight ladder that you climb up and balance on."
As a child, Canestrelli went on the road with his parents.
"I could stay home with my grandparents, or I could be with my parents and work," he said. "I think it was the right decision."
Canestrelli, who has a 4-year-old daughter, says that continuing the family tradition will be her choice. That doesn't mean that she isn't getting an early taste of circus life: "I'm putting her in the show tomorrow, just a little bit."
Involving young people is a big part of Make*A*Circus' mission. Several performers have come out of its teen apprentice program; two apprentices, Blair Williams and Brady Gill, are performing in this year's show. Others are in the technical crew and the lively jazz band that tours with the company.
"When Zucchinis Fly," Make*A*Circus. Saturday, 5 p.m.: El Toro Park, Muirlands/Los Alisos, Lake Forest, (949) 768-0981. Tuesday, 12:30 p.m.: Lafayette Recreation Center, 625 S. Lafayette Park Place, Los Angeles, (213) 387-9426. July 23, 12:30 p.m.: Lennox Boys & Girls Club, 11033 Buford Ave., Los Angeles, (310) 330-3642. July 25, 12:30 p.m.: Wilson Park, 2200 Crenshaw Blvd., Torrance, (310) 618-2930. July 28, 12:30 p.m.: Glorietta Bay Park, 1975 Strand Way and Highway 75, Coronado, (619) 522-7342. July 24, 12:30 p.m.: Paramount Park, 14400 Paramount Boulevard and Rosecrans Avenue, (562) 220-2121. July 27, 12:30 p.m.: Voyager Park, East J Street and Paseo Del Rancho, Chula Vista, (619) 585-5627. Free. (415) 242-1414; http://www.makeacircus.org/.