Isabella Rossellini used all of her skills as an actor, writer, filmmaker, artist, director, model and budding animal behaviorist to thoroughly enchant a capacity audience at the Broad Stage on Saturday, Jan. 26, in the local debut of her performance piece Link Link Circus.
The multimedia work was billed as a “theatricalized lecture,” but Link Link Circus also utilized film, animation, puppetry, toys and music in an unusual presentation that blended whimsical playacting with hard science. Much of the revue could be described as a monologue by Rossellini, except for the various scenes that were stolen by her co-star, an adorable little mixed-breed dog named Peter Pan.
It didn’t take long for Pan to steal her first scene. Rossellini appeared first — decked out in white pants and a black blouse that was covered by her red ringmaster coat — as she strode onstage to a soundtrack of piped-in chicken sounds. Several gray, cartoonish cardboard statues of such figures as Aristotle, B.F. Skinner and René Descartes loomed behind her, while the actor’s own vintage childhood toys were arrayed in a line at the lip of the stage.
“Welcome to the smallest circus in the world!,” she announced grandly as Pan, dressed in a cute chicken costume, pranced across the stage. Rossellini began by describing her ongoing fascination with chickens. Last year, she published My Chickens and I, a book about the chickens she raises on her farm in Long Island, New York. In the show, Rossellini explained that her chickens are mostly heritage breeds — birds who are traditional livestock — in contrast to the more ubiquitous modern, oversize and grossly mutated Frankenstein chickens raised on factory farms.
“My chickens have personalities,” Rossellini bragged. She went on to describe the unexpected intelligence and mental capabilities of chickens, noting that they can count and even make plans for their futures. “Are you as wise as the chickens?” Rossellini archly asked the audience.
During the 70-minute performance, she marveled over the various and seemingly endless ways animals reveal their intelligence and empathy as Pan enthusiastically galloped on and offstage dressed alternately as a bee, a lion, a sheep, a dinosaur and an elephant. Sometimes Pan and Rossellini cavorted with puppeteer Schuyler Beeman, who played several parts, including a beekeeper and a wolf.
Rossellini explained that her love of animals began early in her life. “I even gave my mom’s fur coat a funeral,” she said as a home movie played, showing her as a young kid ceremonially burying the fancy coat in the backyard garden. But her obsession with the animal kingdom deepened once she began studying 10 years ago for her master’s degree in animal behavior and conservation at Hunter College. Around the same time, in 2008, Rossellini started writing and directing Green Porno, a series of short films about the sexual habits of animals, which were shown on YouTube and the Sundance Channel. The popularity of Green Porno and two related television series, Seduce Me: The Spawn of Green Porno and Mammas, inspired scientists to name a new species of beetle discovered in Borneo after the actor — Ptomaphaginus isabellarossellini.
“To have a bug named after me is a great honor,” Rossellini quipped solemnly, as if she were making an Academy Award acceptance speech.
But there was also a method to Link Link Circus’ madly silly distractions. Rossellini pointed out that recent scientific discoveries have affirmed that animals are cognitive and capable of feelings. “We all evolved together,” she said, noting that the show’s title is a nod to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and the way that humans and other animals are inextricably linked. Rossellini examined “cryptic female choices,” the manner in which many female animals control the process of reproduction. She explained how some female ducks have developed genitalia that allow them to thwart unwanted sexual penetration by drakes by sending their phalluses into false vaginal cul-de-sacs where the eggs won’t become fertilized.
While digressing about the awe-inspiring capabilities of whale penises, the actor became visibly hot and bothered. “This show is from the waist up,” Rossellini scolded herself as she segued away from the sexual behavior of animals and returned the focus to their cognitive qualities. She even conflated her experiences as an actor with the underrated acting abilities of animal mothers. Rossellini described how some birds have the ability to lie shamelessly — a dubious talent that only humans were thought to possess. (The actor articulated the various ways she could insincerely recite the phrase “I love you” to demonstrate her own acting abilities.) For instance, some mother birds will feign an injury to draw a predator away from her babies in the nest. “I could have been a Sarah Bernhardt or an Ingrid Bergman,” Rossellini joked in character as the bird while alluding to her legendary mother.
Rossellini’s wonderment about the mysterious lives and capabilities of animals was contagious as she acted out the parts of various philosophers and scientists. Rick Gilbert and Andy Byers’ set design and Byers’ costumes and music added another layer of charm that was heightened by animation by Andy Smetanka and Courtney Pure. Rossellini co-directed the show with longtime ally Guido Torlonia, and the pair kept the mood light with a quick pace even as the performer occasionally touched on heavy scientific and philosophical subjects.
“Chimpanzees have accents,” Rossellini noted before going on to detail how the language of birdsong varies based on geography. With the willing help of Pan — who remained deadpan and in character just like any skilled professional human actor — she celebrated how animals have evolved alongside us, and how the domestication of animals not only affected the evolution of various animal species but also changed humans at the same time.
While many animal species were domesticated as sources of food and clothing for people, Rossellini observed that the evolutionary process that changed wolves into domestic dogs seemingly occurred not as an act of survival but instead as a kind of mutual love affair. “It’s survival of the friendliest,” she said. “The wolf also domesticated us.”
Rossellini went into further detail not only about the genesis of Link Link Circus but also about her rich, varied life in a wide-ranging discussion presented by USC Visions & Voices and the USC School of Dramatic Arts on campus at Bovard Auditorium on Thursday, Jan. 24. Rossellini was welcomed by Daria Yudacufski, the executive director of USC’s Visions & Voices series, before she was officially introduced by fellow actor Mark Hamill as the “enchanting and luminous Isabella Rossellini.” Hamill also said that he used to be a neighbor of Rossellini when they both lived in New York City and that he was looking forward to the discussion because he had always been too shy to ask her about her work when he’d occasionally run into her in the elevator.
Rossellini was interviewed by David Bridel, dean of the USC School of Dramatic Arts and founder of the Clown School, before she took questions from the capacity crowd at Bovard Auditorium. Much of the discussion centered on animal behavior and Link Link Circus, but she also revealed secrets about her famous parents and her acting career.
“We all have different adventures. You can’t play anything without an anchor,” she mused. “They were my parents, and I love them, and I want you to like them.” She lamented that much of the work of her father, influential Italian neorealist film director Roberto Rossellini, is already being forgotten in this era. “They worked like anthropologists,” she said about the neorealists and how they forever changed cinema from lightweight escapism into something much more powerful and revelatory.
“She was a migratory bird,” Rossellini said about the way her multilingual and ever-curious mother, Ingrid Bergman, reinvented herself in numerous locations and cultures.
“There are many ways to make a character come alive,” she said in admiration about director David O. Russell, who cast her in the 2015 film Joy. In response to an audience question, she revealed that her two most personally interesting roles were as Joséphine de Beauharnais in the 2002 miniseries Napoléon and as the tortured nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens in director David Lynch’s 1986 Blue Velvet. “The character is very complex,” Rossellini said about Vallens. “I created a character” that was portrayed as a victim of abuse suffering from Stockholm syndrome.
Dressed in black slacks with a long lavender scarf draped over a multicolored tunic, Rossellini reminisced about her experiences working with director Robert Zemeckis and his crew on the 1992 film Death Becomes Her. “It was artisanal, their cooperation between artists.”
A student in the crowd wanted to know what Rossellini felt when she guest starred as herself on an episode of Friends. “I must have made it,” the actor remembered thinking at the time about being asked to appear on the popular television series.
When asked what were her favorite films involving her parents, she chose Notorious, the 1946 Alfred Hitchcock spy thriller with Bergman, and Stromboli, the torrid 1950 Italian film about tuna fishermen directed by Roberto Rossellini that featured his new muse, Bergman. “Only within one generation, we have had an entire generation disappear,” she lamented about the decline of tuna fishing in the Mediterranean Sea, returning the subject to her love of animals.
“When you look at nature, everything exists,” Rossellini said about animals who are hermaphrodites or can change their gender. “Does homosexuality happen in animals?,” she asked while riffing on the absurdity of hermaphroditic animals being inspected for heterosexual tendencies before being allowed on Noah’s ark.
“It’s very interesting, the story of the domestication of animals. … They’re linked with us emotionally. There’s an emotional continuity and a cognitive continuity, of course. Do we eat them?” she wondered about the intertwined lives of humans and domesticated animals. Rossellini admitted that despite her admiration for many animals, she is not a vegetarian. She also confessed that Green Porno and the other short films and series were sometimes difficult to make. “They’re elaborate; they’re not cheap,” she said. Despite the success of Green Porno, “I still couldn’t find a sponsor, so that is why I went back to the theater.”
When she thinks about animals, “It gives me a cinema in my head,” Rossellini explained about how she envisioned the films and theatrical production in her mind before turning them into reality. She also dished a little backstage gossip about her charismatic co-star, Pan. “The other day, she barked at somebody” during a performance, Rossellini said. Pan briefly lost her focus and slipped out of character when someone in the audience rattled a bracelet, which apparently reminded her of another dog on a chain approaching. But, like any good Method actor, Pan stopped barking and quickly returned to her impressively focused onstage demeanor.