It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a Karamazov! This high-flying, zany, juggling comedy-troupe graced the stage of Campbell Hall this weekend, turning the mundane lecture hall into nothing I’ve seen before. The performance, put on by UCSB Arts and Lectures, was part of the continuing Family Fun Series. Kid-friendly activities were set up before the show, including arts and crafts, face paint and balloon animals. (Full disclosure: I really had to refrain myself from getting a balloon hat.)
The show itself was a nostalgic combination of the Marx Brothers, a 60s hippie festival and a top-notch circus act. The troupe learned their trade while performing as street artists in Santa Cruz, California. Once lowly buskers, the Karamazov Brothers are now international performers who have graced Broadway stages and even appeared on an episode of the beloved hit series “Seinfeld.”
Paul Magid or “Dmitri”, who co-founded the group in 1973, is still in the crew, looking like a hippie version of Groucho Marx. Appearing less like a brother than a father-figure to his three younger colleagues, Pavel, Zossima and Alexei, Dmitri leads them in an evening designed to prove that you can still find entertainment amongst everyday things. At least, that’s what I realized when I walked into Campbell hall and the stage was covered with cardboard boxes, transforming the lecture hall into a pack rat’s attic.
The kilted foursome began the show skipping about the stage before diving into their first act. The men beat rhythms on cardboard boxes, sang songs, danced a goofy ballet and skillfully played each other’s instruments. And throughout it all, there was juggling. They juggled while playing musical instruments. At times the show was mesmerizingly beautiful, as the troupe juggled in the dark with illuminated balls, but mostly, comedy prevailed as the main source of entertainment.
The zany antics kept children’s full attention, while the show was peppered with adult-oriented content to create a cohesive balance. So many puns were uttered — at least one every other line — that the show could be considered an ode to puns. I, being a pun aficionado, was laughing along with those around me when Zossima proudly sat at the piano and said, “Let’s begin with Chopin’s prelude,” before promptly showing a pan to the audience.
Though most of the performance was onstage, audience participation was a very large aspect. Much like Seaworld’s “splash zone,” the first few rows were subject to squirting water, ping pong balls and even pins to the face, a stunt reserved for a woman in the front row. Plucked from the audience, a brave mother had to stand still as pins were juggled fore and behind her from all four players. “We’re working without a net,” one of them announced, before adding, “We didn’t even invite her.”
A trademark bit of Karamazov’s Flying Circus is that audience members bring items for Dmitri to juggle. Three of those objects were chosen by applause. If he managed to keep them in the air for a count of 10, then the audience would have to give him a standing ovation. If he fails, he gets a custard pie in the kisser.
At Campbell, a padded seat cushion, snorkel and doggy-poop bag filled with a smashed big mac were the winners. The seasoned performer juggled them with remarkable ease. It’s a skit the Brothers have been doing for years, yet the challenge still came across as fresh and genuinely funny.
Finally came the closing act: “Terror Trick.” Pieces of this act were gradually introduced to the audience throughout the show, which included the following: a meat cleaver, torch, salt shaker, ukulele, skillet, fish, egg, block of dry ice and a bottle of champagne. The four Brothers gathered around on the stage and picked up the items, and fulfilling everyone’s prediction they juggled all the items at once. But there was a surprise — instead of tossing them up again, they caught and collected each piece, transforming the scene from juggling to cooking the fish and the egg in the skillet and drinking the champagne.
The whole evening was a mix of suspense and skill, with the occasional mistake, but then as Alexei notes in the program: “Each toss is a flirtation with failure.” And that’s part of what’s so alluring about this production — when a pin drops on stage, you’re not sure whether it was intentional or not, you can’t predict what’s going to happen next; you never know when the show has gone off track. This ragged-around-the-edges feel added a charm to the show and made everyone realize that though they’re not brothers, aren’t Russian and can’t fly, the Flying Karamazov Brothers are still something special.
If you’ve never heard of the Karamazov Brothers check out their antics here: