Sara Moore appears in “Atomic Clown” at Potrero Stage this week. (Courtesy Fernando Gambaroni)

Sara Moore appears in “Atomic Clown” at Potrero Stage this week. (Courtesy Fernando Gambaroni)

‘Triptych of hell’ inspires ‘Atomic Clown’

Sara Moore details bad spell in funny semi-autobiographical play

Clowns know this: Sequences of three are funny, funnier, funniest.

So when three major things happened recently to Sara Moore, San Francisco clown extraordinaire — with credits including Ringling Bros., head of The City’s Clown Conservatory and more — it was practically a given that they’d create a semi-autobiographical clown play. (“They/them” is Moore’s preferred pronoun, and indeed Moore surely contains multitudes.)

But all three things were horrible: Three and a half years ago, Moore’s beloved father (“the guy who infused the clown in me”) died. A year later Moore was diagnosed with breast cancer. Then, amid 30 rounds of radiation, Moore’s wife up and left.

Eight months after treatment, healthy again, Moore, now 50, published a tiny memoir about the “triptych of hell,” called “Atomic Clown.”

But being antsy to perform (among other stage works, Moore’s solo “human cartoon” called “Sho Ho” toured nationally), they turned “Atomic Clown” into a four-clown play in which Moore’s alter ago, the central character, is the gender-fluid Toby.

Three of Moore’s closest clown mates, Colin Johnson, Fernando Gambaroni and Texas Holly, play various roles. In a filmed sequence, Moore’s friend Sharon Gless (of TV’s “Cagney and Lacy” and “Queer as Folk”) appears as a psychotherapist.

In a room at the Circus Center where Moore teaches, the multifaceted star of the show is in denim overalls and floppy clown shoes. Moore and director Sean Owens, a theater artist and veteran of Killing My Lobster and other companies, sit down at a table (with a rubber chicken on it, of course). Shrieks emanate from clowns-in-training next door.

“I was depressed, I was suddenly single again,” explains Moore, who’d thought the marriage was happy. The play goes from the moment Dad died to the “redemption and coming back.”

To get through the six weeks of radiation, Moore inhabited a different clown character each week, wigs, noses, big shoes and all: “When tragedy hits, flip it. Find a way to turn it into a riotous comedy.”

The Kaiser staff obligingly dragged Moore along the floor to the radiation session, grimaced and dramatically clapped their hands over their ears when Moore arrived in the persona of an opera singer, scolded her as needed (“Do not climb on the radiation machine”; “OK, fine”).

A fantasia in which Toby gets hooked up to an IV and then “we all start drifting together; the world changes every time the perspective changes,” as Moore and Owens describe it, the 70-minute “Atomic Clown” involves an escape from a strait jacket, laser tag, an urn filled with raw eggs, a leaf blower and other surreal antics.

There’s also lots of music. Moore, a wannabe rock star and “clownteuse,” sings Billy Joel, early Elton John, or “blue-eyed soul-singer stuff.”

What Moore is talking about in this show, notes Owens, is “connection, identity, finding buoyancy in a tragic world. It’s a huge thing.”

“The one thing I’ve learned,” says Moore, “is that love does conquer all. If you allow it to. If you decide to just let yourself be loving.”

IF YOU GO

Atomic Clown

Where: Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 21-23, 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 24

Tickets: $26.50 to $41.50

Contact: (415) 992-6677, www.potrerostage.org

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