The Flying Karamazov Brothers in “4Play”
Ordinarily it is my position that the critic ought to be a storehouse of cultural knowledge, a sort of walking encyclopedia of theatre history, broader cultural history, and, well, the rest of human knowledge and experience in general. Tall order? Impossible? Maybe. But anyone who presumes to set himself up to judge the hard work of others (while doing scarcely any himself) had best know whereof he speaks. As I say, that is ordinarily my position. But there can be times where too much memory can get in the way. In such cases, the good critic must do his best to clear his mind in order to be mindful of the moment at hand. Wordsworth, as opposed to Pope.
This is what I must take care to do in the present case. I first became a fan of the the Flying Karamazov Brothers in their salad days in the 1980s, in shows at Lincoln Center, and on television. Subsequently, two of the original members have supported my own work. Howard Patterson spoke to me at length as I was researching No Applause. Tim Furst was my very generous host and sponsor at the Moisture Festival in Seattle. More importantly, I simply have a weakness for old hippies. My brother is one. I worked for and with old hippies at Big Apple Circus and Theater for the New City. The original Flying K’s reminded me of the Firesign Theatre guys…they had an ingenious way of marrying the anarchism of the Yippies to the anarchy of the Marx Brothers. Not only superlative jugglers, but superlative comedians, they hurl as many brave puns (I never call puns “bad”) as juggling pins, many of their jokes having a sly, left-wing slant, true to the team’s origins in the Nixon years. And this is what I have a hard time escaping. I WANT BEARDS AND PONYTAILS, GODDAMN IT!!!!
To be accurate, one ponytail remains, that of original member Paul Magid, who wrote the bulk of the current show and is part of the quartet. Unfortunately, on the night I and my kids saw the current show 4Play an understudy (Amiel Martin) subbed for Magid, and I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was watching a Who concert in which every member was Kenney Jones. This feeling was especially acute because the Magid-penned script, hysterical as always, still has the classic Karamazov flavor…now being delivered by men young enough to regard Vietnam as simply a tourist destination with which America, according to the history books, was once at war.
BUT THAT’S NOT FAIR! You see, because, these guys are great. They are really and truly great. There has been a sort of juggling revolution in the last few decades. Young people invent juggling patterns on computers nowadays. I’m not authoritative on the subject, but I suspect that the new generation Karamazovs are probably much better jugglers than their predecessors, mainly because the industry standards are so much higher. Are they shaggy? Yes. Well, some of them. Are they funny? Yes, yes, yes. And there’s an added bonus. This crop is musical, making them even more like the Marx Brothers. In fact, music seems to be the theme of the present show. There are routines and riffs on every sort of music you can think of, from opera and ballet to doo wop and ethnic folk music. Some of the members are talented on several instruments and they sing harmonies as well. The entire show is boffo. These are talented guys. And they build to a wild climax, a routine they rightly call “Terror”, in which they juggle nine wildly disparate objects: a meat cleaver, a frying pan, a salt shaker (from which salts spills when it is spun), an egg, a flaming torch, a ukulele, a fish, a champagne bottle, and a cake of dry ice. It is vaudeville to a tee. And the highest praise, and the true test of the show’s success, is that they scored big with my kids — the tabulae rasae. This is where the future of the team lies. (Sorry, hippies.) 4Play is in an open-ended run at the Minetta Lane Theatre. For info an tickets, go here.
And, to find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.