'The Funnybun Family Picnic'
In her new play for children, Emily Ball Cicchini clowns around with an Arthur Miller classic
Wrap your mind around this if you can: Death of a Salesman – yes, that apex of American tragedy – with the Lomans reimagined as clowns. In a play for children.
That's the core of Emily Ball Cicchini's new script with the distinctly un-Milleresque title of The Funnybun Family Picnic, premiering this week at the Long Center. Willy, Linda, Happy, and Biff have been transformed into a clan of circus buffoons (with Biff further altered into Buffy), whose innocuous outing together exposes tensions within the family and a sad secret of papa Willie's. Pretty sober stuff for the kindergarten set, but Cicchini says that she's rewritten Miller's tragic ending "to give us all some hope" and stuffed the show with one-liners and physical comedy.
Indeed, the impulse to write about clowns came before her idea to appropriate Miller's drama. "I want live theatre to be really special, vibrant, interesting – so it can compete with digital media in richness of presentation," she says. "The clowning world is ripe territory for exploration. The different types of clowns and their functions in society over time are fascinating. So many people have mixed feelings and even deep fears about clowns, and that's really cool and bizarre."
Cicchini, resident playwright for Pollyanna Theatre Company, pitched the idea of a clown play to Artistic Director Judy Matetzschk-Campbell, who responsed enthusiastically. "I think the Death of a Salesman thing was kind of a surprise introduction with the first treatment," she recalls. "I like appropriation partly because it is a structural scaffold. I'm good at characters and dialogue, not always so good with plots. I've done it before with Ibsen and Chekhov and Mamet. This time, I took the parody a great deal further, laying into the comedy in a broad way. I think this transformed the original even more."
Don't expect every element of Funnybun to echo the original. Cicchini expressly felt the need to develop the female perspective: "The biggest thing I had to consciously change was Linda's character. I thought a great deal about her last line after Willy's suicide: 'We're free.' Good golly, this can be interpreted so many ways. That's why Miller is brilliant. But, to me, she still comes off too much like a passive victim, and I just couldn't stick with that model of a mother's role."
Do expect jokey references to Miller, though: Alaska, salesmen, Ben and Charley. Cicchini feels adults might enjoy her play more if they get reacquainted with the original beforehand, watching a video version or reading the play. Kids, however, she thinks, "should be good to go. To quote my version of Happy: 'Viewer discretion may be advised, but it's never really expected.'"
The Funnybun Family Picnic runs July 13-21, Saturday, 2pm & 4pm; Sunday, 2pm; Tuesday-Friday, 9:30 & 11:15am, with additional performances Tuesday, July 16, 1pm; and Saturday, July 20, 11am, at the Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 512/474-5664 (weekend shows) or 512/743-7966 (weekday shows) or visit www.pollyannatheatrecompany.org.