You could describe the Flying Karamazov Brothers as zany musical techno-geek juggling fabulist-vaudevillians. They tell jokes. They make music while they juggle. They collaborate with MIT to create wireless sonar electronic toys. They challenge audiences to come up with any three "unjugglable" objects.
And they're performing their new show, "Life: A Guide for the Perplexed," at the San Diego Repertory Theatre through Feb. 6.
The Flying Karamazov Brothers -- Pavel, Dmitri, Alexei and Ivan -- are neither Karamazovs nor brothers, and those aren't their real names. But there is a lot of flying. Or rather, airborne objects hurtle through the air in rapid rhythmic succession. The Flying Ks, or sometimes just the Ks, as they are commonly called for the sake of brevity and pronunciation, are mostly known for their high energy juggling.
But they don't think of themselves as primarily jugglers.
"We juggle. And we like juggling," said Howard Jay Patterson (aka Ivan) in a recent interview. "But we think of ourselves as theatric performers with a comedic bent who play music and juggle. Juggling is fairly far down the list in our hierarchy of importance."
Similarly, "Life" isn't just a juggling show; there's music, dancing, puppetry, peculiar characters, lots of absurdity. Dmitri (Paul Magid) is experiencing a midlife crisis, so he turns to "A Guide for the Perplexed," a book by 12th-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides. That may be it as far as a strict storyline goes, but the show is replete with cultural allusions and literary references, from Shakespeare's famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech to Bollywood music and film to the war in Iraq. "Life" is a philosophical musing on the topics of aging and the midlife crisis -- appropriate, perhaps, since Flying Ks co-founders Patterson and Magid have been at it since 1973.
Mixed in with the slapstick and commedia dell'arte is a lot of intellect. In past shows the Ks have tackled quantum physics, the theory of relativity, the mathematics involved in juggling patterns -- subject matter that sometimes flies right over the heads of their audiences. The Karamozovs have had to scrap bits in the past because their complexity went unappreciated. "We've gotten to do patterns that are so complex that civilians can't really see them," Patterson said. "All that happens is that they see an absence of disaster." The new show, he said, is very accessible.
"This show there's no dumbing down," said Patterson. "We think everyone's pretty much on our level for this, because we're talking about what you do when you find that you're an adult suddenly, how does your childhood fit into your life. No one is any better or worse at this than we are."
But that doesn't mean the Ks have given up on their love affair with high-tech gadgetry. The group has been known to collaborate with MIT's Physics and Media Group to create their techie toys. This time around, the Flying Ks have developed the Juggletron, a circular, electronic instrument featuring MIDI-driven drum pads that produce sampled sounds in six octaves. The Ks stand within the seven-foot-wide circle facing outward and simultaneously sing, juggle and "play" the instrument.
Music has always been an integral part of the Flying Ks' repertoire. Each of the members, including Roderick Kimball (aka Pavel) and Mark Ettinger (Alexei), have at least some musical training. Juggling, said Patterson, is a rhythmic -- and therefore musical -- endeavor.
"We refer to it as musical juggling, for lack of a better term -- we've tried 'muggling' or 'jusiling' but didn't like the sound," he said. "We've always dealt with juggling by listening to it. It's visual music. But that isn't obvious to the casual observer, so we've tried to make new ways to make that connection between juggling and music clearer."
One such attempt is "jazz juggling," an exercise where a set of elaborate rules guide their movements and keep them from running into each other. Within the rules, though, the Ks are free to improvise wildly.
Improvisation and audience participation are trademarks of a Flying Ks show, most notoriously in The Gamble. Dmitri wagers a pie in the face that he'll be able to juggle any three objects provided by viewers. If he wins, he gets a standing ovation. Fans of the Karamazovs usually come prepared for the segment, bringing wacky, oddly shaped items like Slinkys, a block of dry ice, computers, bottles and processed meat products.
If you bring an item for The Gamble, be creative -- after 30 years in business, the Flying Karamazov Brothers have probably seen it all. Just keep in mind a few stipulations: Objects should weigh between one ounce and 10 pounds, be no bigger than a bread box, and absolutely no live animals!
"We think it's a funny art; our approach is so playful," said Patterson. "It's like a sport where we try to make everyone look as cool as possible."
PROGRAM: "Life: A Guide for the Perplexed," written and starring the Flying Karamazov Brothers
Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Dates: Through Feb. 6
Show times: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m.
Location: Lyceum, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown San Diego