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The Flying Karamazov's -- they juggle till they drop



Spingold Theater, Brandeis.

Continues through Nov. 4.



THEY SAY ANYONE CAN JUGGLE, given a little practice. But Ivan Karamazov is not just anyone. Ivan is the champ, gambling each night that he can juggle any three items an audience can bring to the stage. Success will bring him a performer's highest reward, the standing ovation. But failure, the inability to juggle keep three objects suspended in mid-air for 10 seconds, brings the ultimate in vaudevillian punishment -- the cream pie in the face.

On Wednesday the champ faced down yet another tricky set of opponents. On his third (and last) try he kept aloft a slinky, a lawn flamingo, and a half gallon of vanilla ice cream (sans container). I was not too surprised, having seen him juggle a birthday cake with lighted candles, a medium-sized hanging plant, and a Tupperware container full of cold spaghetti -- with no lid, of course -- in a previous Gamble.

Yes, the Flying Karamazov Brothers are back in town, still performing the Gamble, and still improving their latest show, Club. If the combination of awesome juggling, innovative music production, great improvisational comedy, and bad punning sounds appealing to you, you should definitely check out their performances at Brandeis University this weekend.

Known for mixing jokes and sight gags into a witch's brew of flying pins, the Karamazovs are also educational, e.g., "There's only one way you can catch a sickle -- more than once"; "con brillo -- that's Spanish for `with scouring pads' "; or "Andr'e, the beer of bottled champagnes."

Juggling and punning is not all that they do, however. Noting that juggling is rhythm, and music is rhythm, they assert that juggling is music. To prove it, they play a selection of works on xylophone, drum, and electronic helmet. The music ranges from Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" to an original environmental song, "The Whole World's Got to Learn to Juggle."

But juggling is what holds the show together, whether it is a slickly rehearsed routine involving nine "terror objects" (including dry ice, a flaming torch, a cleaver, and the bottle of champagne) or a free-form exploration they appropriately call "jazz." Their secret involves timing and teamwork, and a sense of fun which feeds off of the audience's pleasure.

In fact, if there was a down side to Wednesday's show, it was the flat audience. For some reason the audience was somewhat older than typical, and they simply were not getting as involved as the Karamazovs desired. But the entertainers took it in stride, leading encore calls for themselves.

The brothers also found other ways to force audience involvement. During a tribute to their Hollywood debut, they parodied a scene from Jewel of the Nile. After drafting a man from the audience to be "Danny" (DeVito), two Sufi warriors (Smerdyakov and Ivan) ran onto the stage and proceeded to juggle six scimitars around Danny. When they finished, they offered him a glass of water, Danny's cue to say "They never touched me." I'm sure he was glad to find his line quite true, although the "stunt suit" he was wearing belied that claim, sprinkling many in the audience.

The brothers Dmitri, Smerdyakov, Ivan, and Fyodor (Paul David Magid, Sam Williams, Howard Jay Patterson, and Timothy Furst) are neither Russian nor brothers, and their non-juggling interests range from philosophy and biology to martial arts and chess. They formed their troupe on the campus of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and now live near Seattle.

While rising in fame and popularity they spent several years on the streets and in the fairs up and down the West Coast. Eventually they made it to Hollywood (Jewel of the Nile), had three successful runs on Broadway, and toured extensively with their shows Juggling and Cheap Theatrics, Juggle and Hyde, and From the Closet of Dr. Karamazov.

In 1987 they starred in and co-produced a Lincoln Center production of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, which was broadcast live on PBS. Recently they won an Emmy award for their PBS special, The Flying Karamazov Brothers: Stars of New Vaudeville. In addition to appearances in the United States, they have appeared in arts festivals in Edinburgh and Hong Kong.