October 20, 2018

Clowning Around With Cancer

After Stanford University graduate Jonna Tamases survived two different cancers in the 1980s, her life took an unexpected turn: She ran off to join the circus.

She recounts her experience in her quirky, one-woman show, "Jonna’s Body, Please Hold," now through Sept. 28 at the Odyssey Theatre.

Don’t expect a straightforward comic narrative like "God Said Ha!" Julia Sweeney’s 1998 monologue about her cervical cancer.

"The play is the story of my body as a hotel-like entity filled with these darling characters who are my body parts, personified," said the winsome Tamases, 37.

Drawing on her two years with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the ex-clown uses exaggerated physical comedy to characterize each limb.

"What I really hated about having cancer was watching my identity narrow down to just being sick," she said of her inspiration. "So I didn’t want to create a ‘woe is me,’ kind of play."

Although Tamases loved playacting while growing up in a culturally Jewish home in Palo Alto, the assumption was that a nice Jewish girl should "go to an Ivy League college, get a fancy-schmancy degree and become a professional."

She was planning to do just that as a Columbia University freshman when a routine X-ray revealed Hodgkin’s disease. A year later, other tests showed a large-cell lymphoma. Radiation treatments later caused her to develop a third type of cancer and to undergo a double mastectomy.

"We all know the cliché that life is short, but experiencing cancer really puts that knowledge in your body," she said.

Tamases scrapped the professional job route to return to her childhood love, playacting; eventually she applied to Barnum’s Clown College with a letter featuring her face superimposed on a daisy and the words, "pick me." One of 30 people selected among 2,000 hopefuls, she learned circus requisites such as stilt-walking and was hired in 1994.

Tamases, who brings her goofy, innocent clown persona to "Jonna’s Body," said "the pressure and the possibility of death is still with me. I’m a lot more anxious than other people. The flip side is that I’m acutely aware of the preciousness of life and how much I love it. And I want that joy to come out in the play."

$22.50-$25. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (310) 477-2055.