Flying Karamazovs Remember When They Used to Juggle

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The Flying Karamazov Brothers have been doing their thing for an awfully long time. They started their comedic juggling act in April 1973, honing their craft at Renaissance faires and on the streets of Santa Cruz and San Francisco. By the 1980s they had taken their act to Broadway, appeared in an acclaimed juggle-centric version of The Comedy of Errors at Lincoln Center and co-starred in the movie Jewel of the Nile. By that time the original Karamazov crew had grown from a duo to a quintet, with each new arrival taking on the stage name of another character from Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.

Since then many Brothers (none of them related) have come and gone. They've long since run out of names from the novel, so heretofore unknown Karamazov Brothers have popped up with various Russian or vaguely Russian-sounding names. Now the only founding member left is Paul Magid, alias Dmitri Karamazov, and he recounts the history of the group at San Jose Repertory Theatre in the world premiere of 40 Years of Wandering, Juggling, and Cheap Theatrics.

You might think a show like this would feature the greatest hits of the troupe's act over the years, maybe even a reunion. In fact it turns out to be more like a lecture. Magid stands at a podium reading his account of the group's genesis, career highlights, all the cool people they met, and all the buses they bought. A slideshow of old photos accompanies the narrative, plus clips from The Comedy of Errors and some paper commercials they did. On opening night Magid had to poke his head out to tell us not to stay and watch the commercials, because it was actually the intermission.

The allure of the ads may be indicative of how starved the audience was for actual juggling in this particular show. Magid and three other Karamazovs perform bits of the act from time to time to illustrate its evolution, but most of the time it's just Magid reading aloud. He's an entertaining raconteur, euphemistically referring to lovers as "hats" and drugs as "glasses," but the show, directed by Alan Cohen, feels loose and under-rehearsed. On opening night Magid lost his place a lot and the jugglers dropped more objects than usual.

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Starting in Magid's youth at Saratoga High and UC Santa Cruz, the narrative leaves off just a few years ago with a completely different lineup of new Karamazovs than the ones we see onstage, which is confusing given how thoroughly the comings and goings of group members have been chronicled up to this point. It's unclear whether this is a brand new lineup or a B team -- without much juggling in the show, it's hard to judge.

A few anecdotes are great, such as totaling Jerry Garcia's car with the while trying to move the Karamazov bus under the influence of some powerful "glasses of many colors." But the litany of the band of jugglers' shows, members, tricks, buses, hats, and glasses over the years gets repetitive, and all this talk of juggling makes you want to see more of it.

The bits of juggling you do get are awfully entertaining, starting with a pre-show right outside the theater, reliving the troupe's days as street performers. You'd be well advised to come a little early, because that's where the action is. Heck, I'd say check out the pre-show even if you're not going to the show.

Young 'uns Kiyotov (Kiyota Sage) and Chenovski (Chen Pollina) recreate an early shtick of juggling while singing a bawdy Elizabethan ballad, and avuncular Kuzma (Harry Levine) performs an eclectic routine dissecting the double meanings in a Shakespeare passage. Dmitri and Chenovski juggle sickles, reminding us, "There is only one end of a sickle that one can catch -- more than once."

The second half of the show is livelier than the first, with some fun audience-participation routines and a fascinating breakdown of how group juggling is like jazz. And then there's an old Karamazov tradition, a challenge to juggle three random objects provided by the audience—in this case a program, a shoe and an open box of corn flakes. On opening night there wasn't much hope Kiyotov could manage it, because he'd been dropping things all night, but either way the bit is a crowd-pleaser.

These occasional flurries of activity leave you wanting more juggling and less talking about juggling. When Magid recounts the development of the Terror Trick (juggling nine odd objects at once, including a cleaver, a flaming torch, an egg, a fish and a bottle of champagne) and he and the others don't perform it, you think surely they must be saving the best for last. But no, it's just a tease. Don't talk about the Terror Trick unless you're actually going to do the Terror Trick.

40 Years of Wandering, Juggling, and Cheap Theatrics runs through February 24, 2013 at San Jose Repertory Theatre. For tickets and information visit sjrep.com.