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Puns, Politics and Lots of Flying Balls

By Amelia E. Lester and Simon W. Vozick-levinson, Crimson Staff Writers

Last week, as the Democratic National Convention filled Boston’s FleetCenter with four straight days of platform-pounding and strategic maneuvers, a political juggling act of a different sort was getting underway at Cambridge’s very own American Repertory Theatre (ART): the latest effort of the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

While Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., was hailed as a war hero turned peacemaker by speaker after speaker, the Brothers preferred to dub themselves the “men of the epididymis.” To live up to the title, three of the four avant-garde jugglers donned spermatozoan headgear and sang of the miracles of conception while the last ersatz sibling lolled about the stage in the filmy garb of a gigantic ovum.

But this was only one of the many interludes making up “Life: A Guide for the (Politically) Perplexed (Convention Edition),” a meta-vaudeville-cum-commedia-dell’arte revue now completing the last of two weeks at the ART.

Those arriving at the Brattle Street theater expecting a spot of Dostoevskian drama will be disappointed to learn that the performers’ formidable moustaches are practically the only things linking the men on stage to their Russian namesakes Dmitri, Alexei, Ivan and Pavel. And only three of the entertainers have facial hair.

But all four are as deft with political satire, wordplay and cultural allusion as they are with the balls they send flying through the air.

Lead “brother” Paul “Dmitri” Magid, who wrote the madcap script, explains that such a heady mixture was once de rigeur in the California street-theater scene where he and co-founder Howard Jay “Ivan” Patterson hit upon the idea that would make them stars.

“Only these days,” Magid tells The Crimson after last Saturday’s performance, when asked if he thinks his brand of social commentary and sleight-of-hand is unique. “There’s not enough political juggling.”

For a moment, he looks downcast. But with the help of Patterson, Mark “Alexei” Ettinger or Roderick “Pavel” Kimball, Magid’s spirits are high as he tosses anything that will fly.

And it is anything. The artistes are most at home with a juggling pin—or five—in the air above them, but a dead squid, items of clothing, mangled Slinkies and olive-oil-doused kelp have been some of the odder items volunteered for an audience-participation gambit that has become one of the troupe’s trademark routines.

Entitled “The Gamble,” the nail-biting ritual ends with either a standing ovation or a pie to one of the Brothers’ faces, depending on how adeptly they can adopt the surprise items into their juggling act.

“Longtime fans kinda know to bring stuff,” says Anbodha, a one-name sound technician for the band of brothers, with a mischievous grin.

THE SOUND OF ONE BALL FALLING

The show’s plot, if it can be called such, can be summarized as follows: A mystical book, patterned loosely after Maimonides’ Medieval Jewish Guide to the Perplexed, offers cryptic solace to a man engulfed in a midlife crisis. In the course of reading the magical book’s rules, the man revisits the many stages of his life via rock opera, Bollywood lip-synching—and, of course, a healthy dose of meticulously choreographed team juggling.

“Life” has been performed at only two venues before coming to Cambridge—Magid says it’s just now been perfected—and was a year in the making.

Magid says he drew inspiration from the fertile plains of the Italian countryside, where he read the works of Dante and Maimonides, the latter in translation.

“I don’t read Arabic,” he explains with a tug at his ample moustache when asked if he’s seen the original text of the abstruse volume. “I want to some day.”

The current version of the play, meanwhile, is itself a kind of translation: Magid says “Life” was first written in the tongue of Michelangelo and the Medicis.

Today, though, it’s pure American comic existentialism, stealing a glance away from its navel to plunder decades of pop culture. References to weapons of mass destruction, The Matrix and Popeye abound among more serious moments of reflection.

“I’ve reached a certain age,” Magid says as he pulls at his lustrous handlebar, stretching the last two words with a voluptuously Gallic inflection.

Thus the play casts a cocked eye—and the occasional errant juggling ball—at the many stages of life that follow the epididymis men’s procreative dance. In one particularly revealing number, As You Like It’s “seven ages of man” speech is set to Queenly guitars as the four men take places behind rock instruments.

Though their detailed choreography seems largely second-nature, even the masterful Karamazovs drop the ball from time to time. For those in the audience, this can prove disconcerting.

“I felt stressed out,” says show-goer Chris Denune after Saturday’s performance.

Denune explains that he watched the most complex juggling sequences with a mixture of rapt attention and fear that at any moment, a ball could fall from orbit.

“It’s that age-old thing about juggling,” Denune says.

Still, anyone can see that it takes profound discipline to make as few mistakes as the Brothers do in presenting such an elaborate spectacle.

“I would like to know more about them and their whole philosophies,” says audience member Joan Mullen as she reenters the theater lobby.

But where some wonder, The Crimson found out.

“We feel that juggling is dropping,” Magid says, looking very much like a Zen monk as he smooths his whiskers. “It’s the failure that is important.”

“The thing about juggling is that if you blow it everybody sees it,” he explains further. “It’s a very honest art that way.”

Magid also makes time for an art that’s considerably less honest, though just as much in the public eye—politics. Jokes about stolen elections and trumped-up wars make it easy to discern which way the Brothers will be voting come November. These balls are firmly in left field. But just to make sure, The Crimson inquired as to that most critical qualification for holding high office: Which presidential candidate does Magid think would juggle best?

“I think John Kerry would be better,” he replies with little hesitation and a quick twirl of the ’stache. “George Bush would be too arrogant...[he] wouldn’t have the patience with how much failure it takes to juggle.”

—Staff writer Amelia E. Lester can be reached at lester@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at vozick@fas.harvard.edu.

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