Flying Karamazov Brothers

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Wednesday Jul 21, 2004
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The Flying Karamazov Brothers aren’t Russian or brothers, nor do they fly. What they do, and have been doing for some time now, is juggle, tell jokes, make bad puns, and clown like vaudevillians of the post-Modern variety. Their ‘shtick’ is to charm their audience with a combination of deadpan comedy and some pretty wonderful juggling; but with their latest piece, “Life: A Guide for the Perplexed (Convention Edition),” they attempt something a bit more structured and weighty: an examination of mid-life crisis skewed through their zany sensibilities.

Conceived by Paul Magrid, one of the hippieish co-founders of the group, the loose-knit show was inspired by his mid-life crisis that he experienced last summer while in Italy. In the artistic conceit he doesn’t seek guidance from Dr. Phil, but rather from a medieval text called “A Guide for the Perplexed” by a 12th-century Aristotelian rabbi Maimonides that’s filled with rules, lessons, and parables to guide someone through life.

Juggling, it turns out, is an apt metaphor for these larger concerns, involving such issues as personal responsibilities, trust, self-confidence, and dealing with the curve balls that life sends us in our day-to-day lives. “Life is a series of unconnected experiences that make up a connected whole,” says one of the group, “which, you believe me, you don’t want to step into.”

What proves to be the most telling rule is the first: everybody juggles; but what’s left out is that some do it better than others; and the Flying Karamazov Brothers do it best of all. And the high points of the show come with these routines, such as when the boyish Roderick Kimball throws about a half-dozen egg-like objects with a Zen-like calm; or when the quartet mix juggling and musicianship as they play a large, round xylophone-like instrument (called a “jugglatron”) with nothing more than flying pins. One of the most familiar routines comes when Magid juggles items chosen from objects audience members deposit on the stage. The 3 chosen on opening night were a skateboard, an open water bottle, and some slimy seaweed, which he managed to spin after a few tries.

What turn out to be the most dazzling display of their skills are two routines towards the end: one has the four passing tenpins back and forth while they change positions, at times crossing through the speeding objects. Another has them joined together as a kind of one-man band, each having a hand in manipulating another’s musical instrument while they sing and juggle at the same time.

It’s all pretty impressive; especially considering most audience members (like myself) can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. The Karamazov Brothers, though, are less funny than they think they are, and a little of their overdone routines go a long way. Either you’ll immediately take to their clowning or simply find it a bit tired and obvious, as I did; but perhaps I simply lack the Karamazov Brothers gene, because the show is an obvious crowd-pleaser.

No doubt because this is an election year, and the show has found its way to Cambridge during DNC week, the group infuses the piece with political comments. “What’s the point,” one says, “the Democrats have practically shut down this town, and the Republicans have practically shut down the theaters.” But aside from being pointedly anti-Bush, this running political commentary is hardly Daily Show-ish clever; rather more like the sort of one-liners of the Jay Leno variety awkwardly shoehorned into the evening.

Magrid’s script, with music by Mark Ettigner and lyrics by Howard Jay Patterson, draw from many sources: The opening sequence has the three members dressed as sperm attempting to impregnate a huge egg (played by Kimball) in an obvious reference to Woody Allen’s “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sex.” Later they touch upon the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic, and Shakespeare (The Seven Ages of Man speech from “As You Like It” sung in a dizzying array of pop styles) for their routines that underscore the parables and rules about life that they make throughout.

They make good use of Bliss Kolb’s clownish set design, four cartoonish city towers that unfold in clever ways to reveal domestic interiors, a Middle Eastern bar, a library, and even a starry night after Van Gogh. And one of the cleverest contributions is Barbara Karger’s puppets, which includes a chorus line of life-size Indian men that dance across the stage with mind-boggling precision. At these moments “Life: a Guide for the Perplexed” soars with theatrical invention. Otherwise, though, its mix of self-help commentary and freewheeling clowning is the kind of indulgent fun that’s like preaching to the choir. You can understand how the Karamazov Brothers have developed such a devoted following, and have influenced such similar entertainments as Blue Man Group and the Reduced Shakespeare Company; but appreciating isn’t quite the same thing as enjoying. As my companion pointed out as he headed out at intermission, “They’re okay, but I just don’t get it,” and I can’t help but agree. But see for yourself: this may just be the perfect entertainment for those of you who seek something a bit out of the ordinary on a summer’s evening. The rest of us should simply head to the Common for some free Shakespeare.

Remaining performances are Tuesday - Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. through August 8 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge MA. Tickets are priced from $35 - $45, and are available at the box office or by calling 617-547-8300. For more information visit the American Repertory Theatre website at http:\

Robert Nesti can be reached at


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