Chicago — The Flying Karamazov Brothers can juggle just about anything you can think of to give them. At a recent performance here at the Goodman Theater's Apollo Theater Center (where they will be through June 28), one of them earned a standing ovation for 10 successful rounds of juggling a fresh egg, umbrella, and bowling ball.
Not that it was easy. As evidence of the first two tries gone awry, there was egg on the floor and, for the juggler, a cream pie in the face from one of this fellow performers.
Every program given by this quartet of comedian-jugglers has a time for the audience to contribute to the array of hand-to-air missiles. The only stipulation: All objects must weigh more than one ounce and be no heavier than a breadbox, and there can be no live animals (the result of an unhappy juggling experience with a live lobster).
As the Karamazovs' reputation has grown, so has the imagination of their audiences in preparation for that moment. When I saw this group perform a year ago at the Goodman's Studio Theater, the audience challenge included a giant glob of unwrapped cream cheese. In time the juggling was successful, but the stage floor took the brunt of a few missed tries on the boards.
Without audience help this ambidextrous foursome, which started as a duo of college friends at the Santa Cruz campus of the University of Southern California, juggles everything from the usual bowling pins and pieces of fruit eaten in the act to razor-sharp sickles ("There's only one end you can catch more than once") and a running chain saw. But they make it all look so relaxed and enjoyable that you're tempted to forget about the highly coordinated skills involved. Only their occasional reminders serve as an alert. "Juggling means dropping, so when you see it, don't pull out those mental tomatoes," juggler Paul Magid warns the audience.
What really makes this performance jell as entertainment is the blend of physical action and a constant banter that gently mocks everything from the English language and vaudeville exaggerations ("We're working without a net" . . . "Never performed in front of a live audience before") to the audience and the performers themselves. Its name (a takeoff blend of Dostoevski's novel with its dark and passionate overstones and the anti-art of the "Flying Santinis" circus world) -- as well as their all-black costumes (from whimsical Indian-style wraparound trousers to what one admirer calls their "funky" hats) -- serves as a quick signal to the audience that this quartet of performers doesn't take itself too seriously.
Within minutes it is abundantly clear that the "brothers," who have adopted Russian names for the occasion (Such as Dmitri and Ivan), enjoy a very special rapport with each other. They let fly with a variety of puns ("Watch your language." -- " English. What's yours?") or after a particularly skillful juggle: "See, I didn't go to college for nothing. It cost me thousands of dollars." There are plenty of nonsense maxims ("By not failing we shall have failed to fail") set up to make you think twice. And a scold for a miss may come out: "You must have gone to Northwestern."
None of this chatter on its own is all that funny. But heard as a backdrop for the really remarkable juggling that goes on, and mixed with a little free-flowing improvisation which keeps the performers doubly on their toes, it's almost guaranteed to keep you chuckling as you watch.