Isabella Rossellini's Link Link Circus
Isabella Rossellini and friends. Photo by Jody Shapiro

Isabella Rossellini wants you to connect with your inner animal. An extended riff on the deep evolutionary ties between homo sapiens and our fauna relations near and distant, her multimedia show Link Link Circus looks at our evolving understanding of the thoughts and emotions of animals.

She brings her one-woman, one-pooch, multi-puppet production back to The Chapel for six performances, Feb. 3 to Feb. 11, reprising her January 2019 sold-out run. Her second touring production, Link Link Circus follows up on her popular theatrical presentation about the insect world’s strange and sometimes gruesome reproductive schemes, Green Porno, the piece that established her biological bona fides.

The Italian-born actress, filmmaker, model, author and philanthropist gave herself a much steeper challenge with Link Link Circus, which is one reason why she enlisted her canine sidekick, Pan, for the show. “With sex, I can make people laugh,” she said in a recent phone conversation from her home in New York City. “Link Link is about cognition, which might sound boring to people so I brought a dog to charm the audience.”

Working with puppeteer and animal handler Schuyler Beeman, who assists Pan in various costume changes to portray other animals, Rossellini vividly details signs that animals are capable of complex thought. She plays various historical roles herself, from Aristotle and Descartes to Darwin and B.F. Skinner, while her alternately hilarious and touching short films, home movies, and animations illustrate the ways in which we humans swim in the same evolutionary currents as other animals.

One of her primary sources is Darwin’s 1872 tome The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, a brilliantly observed study that made pioneering use of photography. In Link Link, Rossellini argues that Darwin’s world-shaking insight into the mechanism of evolution, natural selection, is too often misconstrued.

“Survival of the fittest is a misunderstanding what evolution was,” she said, referring to the phrase coined by Darwin’s contemporary, Herbert Spencer. “People think that means survival of the strongest or most aggressive. But it’s whatever strategy works. It could be survival of the friendliest. I look at the question of why we play. Maybe it’s to learn behavior, training the brain. Young humans play more than older ones. Mammals all play. Do birds play? Mice are studied a lot and they laugh when they’re tickled.”

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The daughter of Italian director Roberto Rossellini and Swedish film legend Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini grew up in Italy fascinated by animals. Zoological studies weren’t readily available to her as a youth, and by her teens her modeling career had taken off, a path that led to acting and her iconic role as a nightclub singer tormented by Dennis Hopper in David Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet.

She traces her desire to create films about animal behavior to her experience reading the work of pioneering Austrian zoologist and Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz. “I was 14 or 15 and a little light bulb went off,” she said. “Since then I wanted to be an environmental artist inspired by nature, for lack of a better term. Not just, there’s a sunset, my heart is beating, but exploring the animal world through art. In the 1960s and 70s that kind of study wasn’t really offered in Italy. I would have had to move to Oxford. I became an actress and model but I read all the science articles in the New York Times and subscribed to journals.”

A path finally opened for Rossellini about seven years ago when she went to hear a Hunter College talk by the author Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Afterward, she picked up a pamphlet about a master’s program at the school in animal behavior and conservation. She signed up that night.

With all her other commitments, it took Rossellini more than four years to complete the two-year program. Link Link Circus was her master’s thesis. “Some students worked in a lab and studied things like parrots’ use of language,” she said. “Some people studied in zoos and others wanted to work in the field. As I was studying I took notes for a new show about cognition. I’d take courses to pick examples that were wonderful and translated them into animation and short films. I was collecting all this information.”

She thrives on performing in front of an audience, but she hasn’t given up her other gigs. She continues her three-decade run representing Lancôme, the swanky French perfume and cosmetics house. And she recently finished the Todd Strauss-Schulson directed comedy Silent Retreat and the Vladislav Kozlov directed Rudolph Valentino biopic Silent Life. With Link Link Circus, she’s making sure her the thoughts of our animal cousins come through loud and clear.

Link Link Circus
The Chapel, 777 Valencia St., San Francisco
8:30 p.m. Feb. 3-6 and Feb. 10-11
$45/$65, (415) 551-5157

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