"Anything is possible in nature," Isabella Rossellini says. "It's so complex and amazing."
The actor and filmmaker is calling from Chicago, where she's on the road touring with her latest project, Link Link Circus, an unusual theatrical performance about the intelligence of animals that combines lighthearted comedy, insightful scientific lectures, playful monologues and philosophical musings into a visually charming multimedia presentation. It arrives at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica for three performances starting Friday, Jan. 25.
Rossellini portrays various scientists, philosophers and theologians (including Charles Darwin, René Descartes, B.F. Skinner and Aristotle) and is accompanied by Peter Pan, a mixed-breed, mostly terrier dog who gamely portrays various animals.
"She wears little costumes," Rossellini, 66, says proudly of Pan. "She plays a dinosaur, a chicken, a bee, a lion, a sheep and an elephant. ... I am costumed as the ringleader." As she says in the show, "Let's play circus — the smallest circus in the world!"
Even with its whimsical elements, Link Link Circus delves into serious subject matter in attempting to settle the debate about whether animals are sentient and capable of having feelings. Most animal lovers already know that pets and other creatures are able to show love, but Rossellini is excited that recent scientific discoveries have confirmed that animals are much smarter than previously realized. She's no dilettante when it comes to this subject: Rossellini is in the midst of finishing her master's degree in animal behavior and conservation at Hunter College in Manhattan, and last year she published My Chickens and I (Harry N. Abrams), a nonfiction book about raising chickens on her small organic farm on Long Island.
"Chickens don't count like we do, but they can estimate quantities and recognize each other in a group of up to 100," she explains. "They are thought to be more cognitive" than previously assumed. "My knowledge about the subject became much more profound" once she enrolled in college, she says of her fascination with the animal kingdom, citing the influence of professor Diana Reiss. "Before, it was always a hobby when I was an actress and model. Going to school organized my thoughts."
Rossellini debuted Link Link Circus in New York City in May 2017, followed by performances in Europe (where the multilingual actor adapted the show into Italian, French and English) and the current tour of North America. "Link Link Circus is a combination of all my life work," she says. "I sometimes call myself an environmental artist. My muse is the environment."
The revue is the latest in a series of works in which Rossellini explores the secret lives of animals. In 2008, she wrote and starred in Green Porno, a two-season series about the sexual behavior of animals that aired on the Sundance Channel before being expanded into book form and a theatrical production. Green Porno was followed by two more animal-themed TV series, 2010's Seduce Me: The Spawn of Green Porno (a wry look at animal mating rituals) and 2013's Mammas (a consideration of the numerous ways animal mothers reveal their maternal instincts).
In Mammas, the actor considered the studies of women biologists who wondered if maternal instincts really exist in nature. "It condemned all women to the idea of having to serve," Rossellini says. "They wanted to see if [the maternal instinct] is a constant in all females — if we can have a definition for female. There are some very self-sacrificing mothers. There is a spider in Australia that lets her offspring eat her — melting her body, which becomes a mush for her babies to eat." She adds, "There was an incredible variety of ways to be a good mama," giving as an example a hamster mother that might consume one of her own babies so she can have enough energy to take care of the others.
"I wanted to be funny," Rossellini says about Link Link Circus. "It's easy to make jokes with sex and seduction," she adds in reference to Green Porno and Seduce Me, noting how audiences tended to laugh when she made references to animal penises. "Pan is there to seduce the audience and make it nice and make it funny."
Rossellini originally tried to cast her dog Pinocchio in Link Link Circus. She first encountered Pinocchio when he was running around in traffic and chasing cars on a street in Long Island. Even after she saved the dog and returned him to his owners, Pinocchio kept running away and returning to her place until his apathetic owners finally said Rossellini could keep him.
"I tried to train Pinocchio, and he didn't learn anything," she laments. When she took the dog to a theater as a kind of audition, Pinocchio became distracted and ended up wandering throughout the venue, greeting every member of the audience. "I do train dogs but I don't know how to make them not react to an audience and music and sound and darkness and curtains. ... That's why I needed Bill Berloni."
Berloni, a veteran animal behaviorist who trains animals for Broadway shows, thought he had the answer — Pan, the approximately 4-year-old dog he rescued from a pound in North Carolina. "Pinocchio is more interested in the outside world than [looking at] me, so he tends to get distracted by the audience," Rossellini says. "Pan constantly has her eyes on me. She's also very driven by treats."
Pan was a willing participant in Rossellini's madcap circus, including traveling as part of Link Link Circus' European tour. Luckily, Pan was able to perform in the United Kingdom before Brexit was enacted and that country went back to requiring that foreign animals be quarantined before being allowed to travel locally. "We did a show in England in October — we wouldn't leave the dog in quarantine," she says.
If anything, Pan is too smart to be a predictable, robotic actor. She's such a ham, in fact, that she knows when the audience is likely to applaud and laugh, and now has a tendency to bark too soon before she's given her cues. "Now she tries to anticipate the reaction," Rossellini says. The actor consulted with the show's puppeteer and animal handler, Schuyler Beeman. "What are the things we're going to skew differently so that we keep her attention? We're even changing treats — in my pocket I hide different treats now," she says, as a way of challenging Pan so that she'll maintain her focus. "The element of boredom can make her a bad actress!"
So who is training whom? "Exactly!" Rossellini laughs.
In addition to Beeman, Link Link Circus utilizes the skills of set designers Rick Gilbert and Andy Byers and director Guido Torlonia. "We've worked together in the last 10 to 12 years," Rossellini says about her veteran crew. "I need an objective eye to know what is funny, and Guido really helped me. Everything is a puzzle — the science had to be correct.
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"I wanted to capture the astonishment and amazement that I personally had when I was discovering all these aspects of behavior," Rossellini says.
Given the actor's longtime love of animals, does she ever eat the creatures she's raising on her farm? "I'm not a vegetarian," she confides. "I have trouble eating the chickens I know personally. Most of the animals are for other things than eating. ... That aspect of slaughtering is hard."
Looking back at the various pets she's lived with, Rossellini says, "They adapt to you, and you adapt to them — it's reciprocal. ... You love them all. In the end, they will each have a way to your heart."
Link Link Circus, Broad Stage, Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., Jan. 25-26, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Jan. 27, 2 p.m.; $79-$99. (310) 434-3412, thebroadstage.org.