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Monday, March 25, 2013

Juggling Careers

Balls in the Air Dept.: As was the case with violinist Julia Fischer, I’ve reviewed the Flying Karamazov Brothers more than once – more than four times, in fact, but how the hell much can you bear? Here are some samples, illustrating how much has changed – and how much hasn’t – over the years.


The Flying Karamazov Brothers
Proctor’s Theatre, Oct. 8, 1994

When you’ve mastered juggling and don’t have an Ed Sullivan Show as an outlet, your choice of performance style tells a lot about you. The Flying Karamazov Brothers have the kind of talent easily swallowed by the juggernaut of glitzy Las Vegas-style show-making, but they have an anarchic sensibility that keeps them fresh.

“Club Sandwich” is their newest show, and the most scripted yet (except, perhaps, for the Shakespeare they’ve done). Woven from bits of film noir and vaudeville tradition, livened with ad libs and shameless puns, it’s a fast-moving two-act tale of mystery and suspense, not the least of the latter being the group’s classic challenge to the audience to provide unusual juggling fodder.

This moment came at the end of the first half, letting us see how adept the Karamazovs are at playing off of an audience. They wove bits of business around the items – which included such strange offerings as a couple of shoes, a small cactus, a large Slinky and a stick of butter – before settling on a small stool, a greased cylinder made wobbly by a couple of heavy balls inside, and a half-gallon of ice cream. Minus its container.

Probably not coincidentally, ice cream was one of the items chosen during the Karamazov’s last Proctor’s visit. I suspect their challenge is met with ice cream at most stops along the way. But they played it up wonderfully. The prize, if one of the four can keep these items aloft for a count of ten, is a standing ovation. The punishment for failure is a pie in the face. Interestingly, the audience was rooting for success, and the fact that what was left of the ice cream slipped out of the juggler’s grasp on nine got a collective cry of dismay.

“Club Sandwich” introduces a tail-coated trio of millionaire jugglers in a Manhattan club, who immediately display their prowess with the traditional tools of the trade. These guys keep their dozen clubs aloft without breaking their insane patter, passing the things back and forth, putting more and more frantic spins on the clubs as they travel, even dropping the things now and then (“I don't think anybody noticed,” is their standard dismissal) without breaking stride.

The plot, which defies examination, has to do with a murder, a set of ancient clubs that juggle themselves, a Sydney Greenstreet-ish villain, a Marlene Dietrich-ish femme fatale (bearded, no less), and a private eye who's able to hop a subway from Cairo to New York and avoid a complicated logistical problem.

But what these bastard sons of the Marx Brothers do along the way include close-harmony singing; a dance routine performed while playing a marimba with juggling clubs, all the while chewing gum, playing a harmonica, singing again and wearing caps with bells; rewriting Gilbert & Sullivan's “I Am the Very Model of a Model Major General” to introduce the intermission and exhort us to buy things; and wrapping it all up with a finale that includes the most breathtaking juggling feats of them all. Oh, and they play sax, trombone, and piano along the way, too.

Dialogue is the weakest part of the show; they seem almost self-conscious about their acting, which concern they should abandon and just go all out for an over-the-top, stylized performance. But thank goodness they're out there keeping guerilla vaudeville alive.

Metroland Magazine, 13 October 1994


The Flying Karamazov Brothers
The Egg, April 19, 2002

There were three levels of comedy at the Egg Friday night. First was the hilarious ritual of offering a photo ID to a grown-up wearing a uniform in order to enter the parking garage below the Empire State Plaza (which now also clips you for two bucks for the privilege of doing so).

Once upstairs and in the theater, free from terrorist threat, we were treated to the two levels of Karamazov comedy: one which appealed very much to the many kids in the audience, and the one that sailed over their heads for some grown-up belly laughs.

The Flying Karamazov Brothers are a bridge to vaudeville, with juggling their specialty but by no means the extent of the show. The foursome can sing, dance, play musical instruments – and they had no shame about winging dreadful puns into the appreciative crowd. In fact there were moments – especially towards the end of Act One, when one of the crew juggles audience-delivered items – when ad-libbing threatens to take over, and that’s fine. These guys are right up there with Fred Allen and other Golden Age ad-libbers.

Four dark-clad performers emerged from a backdrop fashioned around oversized juggling pins and leapt into their traditional exchange of clubs, but they’re never content to merely pass the things around. Why should they be? It’s an amazing sight at first, a marvel of coordination as well as a beautiful pattern to study as the colorful clubs flash among them. But that’s it, and when they jugglers are as good as the Karamazovs, there are few mistakes.

So they upped the ante throughout the show. It’s titled “Catch,” and it’s a best-of distillation of their several Broadway successes. They first hit the White Way in 1983 and have returned several times since; they reopened Vivian Beaumont Theatre in 1986, and returned to that theater a year later for a madcap production of “The Comedy of Errors.”

In “Catch,” we’re treated to a Twilight Zone parody that takes us through the decades of filial juggling by this group, concocting and mastering impossible-to-do patterns of passing clubs. There were oohs from the many jugglers in the house (who, despite being stopped for photo IDs, managed to smuggle juggle gear). Even to a non-juggler like me, the techniques were amazing.

And there was more. They juggled sickles. They beat on boxes. They juggled against drums, producing tasty syncopations. During their kilt-clad second act, they performed an improbable (and nearly indescribable) clog dance routine that was hilarious in its deft execution. They murdered a Big Mac to prove the sharpness of a cleaver that became part of the paraphernalia for the show’s finish, featuring an array of murderous items that also included an egg, a torch, dry ice and a bottle of champagne – and all of it eventually was juggled, bare-handed.

For that first-act routine, the audience covered the stage apron with juggling possibilities (“no bigger than a breadbox ... no heavier than ten pounds”) that included clothing, LPs, and dolls. Eventually chosen were a glob of Jell-O, a vase of flowers and an oversized stuffed pink pig, all of which (once the vase was shattered) stayed aloft for the required count of ten.

Which meant no pie in the face for the “champion,” but it hardly mattered. The pie, grand old symbol of comedy, was there, and if it wasn’t actually hurled that night it got tossed many times in spirit, each hit a bull’s-eye.

Metroland Magazine, 25 April 2002


The Flying Karamazov Brothers
Proctor’s Theatre, Jan. 7, 2006

Those of us being overtaken by middle age – and this includes such boomer entertainers as The Flying Karamazov Brothers – now contemplate a life trajectory the finish to which is annoyingly close. Perplexingly close, you might say, which resonates with the title of the antic juggling group’s new show: LIFE: A Guide for the Perplexed.

But one doesn’t merely term the Karamazovs jugglers. During its more than 20 years of performing, the group melded circus arts and vaudeville into shows that mess with the boundaries and set traditions on their ear. Shakespeare with juggling (and even worse puns than the Bard ever managed)? Such was the Karamazovs’ “Comedy of Errors.” They’ve been on Broadway, in the movies, and in theaters all over the world. So the natural question, when a new show is announced, is – what’s next?

Funny how mortality can goose creativity. This is probably their best show yet, with rich material (plenty of songs, of course) and better pacing than I’ve seen before. This is at the expense of some of the bursting-at-the-seams nuttiness I’ve witnessed in the past, but the through line is so compelling that, by the time we reach the climactic, free-for-all juggling extravaganza, it’s breathtaking. And the quiet finale puts an endearing button on the show.

Personnel has evolved over the years, and the foursome who played Proctor’s Theater on Saturday night mixed old and new, directed by Michael Preston, himself a former member. (It bears repeating that the Flying Karamazov Brothers are neither Russian nor siblings, having whimsically chosen the name because someone was reading Dostoevsky those many years ago.)

The through-line of LIFE involves a book – the Book of Maimonedes – that enters the possession of brother Dmitri (Paul Magid) and offers a guide to existence, a guide that welcomes, at frequent intervals, a confrontation of four jugglers with three pins apiece. Each confrontation (and I mean that in a friendly sense) had more challenges in terms of movement – the quartet seemed to have more choreography than a Busby Berkeley routine – and pin passing, which they make look so effortless that it’s easy to forget just how difficult that is.

But that’s the FKB paradox. If they didn’t make it look easy, they’d hardly be worth watching, but they’re able to work in a classic move like Mills’ Mess, which adds an arm crossing move to an increasing array of balls in the air, with no fanfare at all. Master of the balls was brother Pavel, in his other life known as Roderick Kimball, featured in a sequence that went from one ball to seven and defied logic and gravity.

Music is a compelling feature of any FKB show; here, a rich array of songs introduced and highlighted the scenes. This being a from-birth-to-death epic, we began with the “Men of the Epididymis,” who juggled spermatozoic scarves before invading Pavel’s ovum.

Mark Ettinger (Alexei) wrote most of the music, with lyrics by Howard Patterson (Ivan). The setting, by Bliss Kolb, features four moveable towers that open into backdrops and doorways and proved versatile but unobtrusive.

A feature of most of the shows is The Challenge, in which the Champ (Dmitri) offers to juggle any three objects offered by the audience and then selected by its acclaim. He kept part of a crutch, a transmission oil filter, and a fulsome piece of raw fish aloft for the required count of ten, thus avoiding, once again, a pie in the face.

These guys not only sing, they also sing in excellent close harmony. These guys not only play instruments, they also can finger or strum the instrument held by the next guy, while the end guys cooperatively juggle three balls. The fact that they can wrap all of this into a story with some serious import only shows how top-flight these entertainers are.

It reminded me of when the Marx Brothers went from Paramount to MGM. The pacing slowed, the gags were more skillfully crafted, and they came up with “A Night at the Opera,” one of their greatest movies. Don’t get me wrong: I love the “Duck Soup” incarnation of the Karamazovs, but this new show was an impressive turning point for the group.

Metroland Magazine, 12 January 2006


The Flying Karamazov Brothers
Proctors Theatre, Jan. 22, 2011

For a long time I considered juggling the only worthy face of mime: deft jugglers obviously earned their money with a skill that the fumble-thumbed such as I never will achieve. Jugglers appeared on the Ed Sullivan show during my childhood, alongside plate-spinners and Señor Wences, and only the last-named spoke.

Then, 20 years ago, I saw the Flying Karamazov Brothers quartet perform a routine they call “Jazz,” in which three of them face off the fourth, each armed with three juggling clubs, and erupt into a fountain of flying projectiles. It’s not enough to regard this from the sense of I-can’t-do-that. There’s an impressive aesthetic about those clubs in the air, as they repattern a fast-changing stage picture in colors of kineticism, if motion can be tied to synesthesia.

What’s important to realize is that it’s not a planned routine. Calling it “Jazz” is appropriate because each juggler works within a defined set of movements, each pass and chop and shower equivalent to the chord changes in music. Some combinations, I suspect, are routined, but others are spontaneous moves that the others instantly accommodate.

And there’s a verbal element, a constant and largely improvised patter. During last weekend’s Proctors show, it riffed on current events, Schenectady (easy target) and the audience. This is the group at its best, relaxed and joyful, their beautiful club-work almost an afterthought.

They debuted in 1973 when the two founders scored a buck sixty-five during a street performance that wasn’t even intended to gain money. Ten years later, the FKB were juggling their way through an acclaimed (and PBS-televised) version of “The Comedy of Errors.” They’ve been on Broadway and the West End; they’ve been all over the world. They’ve never looked back, except to retrieve the occasional dropped club.

The modest stage set at the Proctors show consisted of towers of differently sized cardboard boxes, and the show opened with ever more complicated shifts, stacks and placements of those boxes to the insistent strains of “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” An homage to Japan’s Taiko Festival turned a bunch of those boxes into drums and, not surprisingly, they soon were destroyed with the vigor of grade-schoolers running wild.

Which is at the heart of the FKB ethos: these shows are almost pure id, dressed in puns and other verbal byplay that suggest little kids in grown-ups’ costumes, taking it not at all seriously. No wonder their outfits featured kilts.

Until they swapped those skirts for tutus and ran Ballet Trockadero into the ground with a sequence far less awkward than I would have predicted. To a lighthearted Rossini accompaniment, they hit all the classic ballet marks without taxing their own not-necessarily-young bodies. Another dance sequence, later in the show, was a strange but charming clog dance.

Straight out of the Spike Jones book came a musical routine featuring penny whistle, euphonium and guitar. We’d already seen that they could play these well, but this time one of the performers held and strummed or blew the instrument while another fingered or fret-stopped it. And the two end men passed a trio of balls back and forth. While they played and sang “I’ll Be Waiting.”

These guys ooze talent. Stephen Bent, whose ensemble name is Zossima, played Chopin’s Nocturne No. 1 while Mark Ettinger (Alexei) and Andy Sapora (Nikita) deconstructed a passing routine. Harry Levine (Kuzma) also took turns at the Steinway when he wasn’t playing guitar. These were the four out of eight listed “brothers” who performed at the Proctors show, all of them well entrenched in the Karamazov style. Although Ettinger started the evening with more than the usual number of missed clubs, he pulled himself into shape by the second half, which is even more difficult, sometimes, than merely being excellent throughout.

The high point of each show is an audience-participation routine in which the performers collect objects – weighing between one and ten ounces, and no bigger than a breadbox – that the crowd was invited to bring. Amidst a flurry of boots and belts and (disqualified – too light) balloons were the three things applause-voted for The Champ (Sapora) to keep aloft for a count of ten: a loaf of bread, a fish (dead but slimy) and a pile of bright-yellow constantly oozing putty.

It was Sapora’s undoing. He’s allowed to make modifications – the bread, ironically, was deemed to be bigger than a bread box, and was eaten smaller – but even wrapping the canary slime in paper toweling failed to keep it from seeping onto the stage. It’s the first time in several performances I’ve seen the champ lose and get the promised pie in the face.

But they redeemed themselves at the finish by juggling nine nasty objects revealed one by one throughout the show, most potentially damaging of which were a large, sharp meat cleaver, a chunk of steamy dry ice, and a bottle of cheap champagne sans protective cork cage. Did they send these objects acrobatically airborne, cracking jokes all the while? Of course they did. That’s what this fearless foursome is all about.

Metroland Magazine, 27 January 2011

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