BOTTOM LINE: While there are better circus arts shows out there today, these are classic bits from the centuries-old comedy repertoire, and make for a good family outing.
The first time I saw The Flying Karamazov Brothers was on PBS in 1983. I was 11, and my brothers and I thought they were the funniest thing we'd ever seen. They juggled! They told jokes! They told jokes and juggled at the same time! They wore kilts! It was all too much fun, and it quickly became a family staple.
That was 27 years ago though (please don't do the math), and these days there's only one original Brother left, Paul Magid, who plays Dmitri and directs. The other three are played by young, talented performers Mark Ettinger (Alexei), Roderick Kimball (Pavel), and Stephen Bent (Zossima). Things are decidedly mustier now; to give you an idea how long this has been going on, Mr. Bent says in his bio that his parents went to a FKB show for their first date, and he's been a fan ever since. That kind of longevity is admirable, extraordinary, and holds the potential to be a bit dull.
Still – you can see in the still-sharp glint of Mr. Magid's Groucho-with-a-ponytail routine the seeds of the original idea. Imagine it: it's 1973 at a Renaissance fair in Northern California, and Cirque de Soleil is not yet even a twinkle in Guy LaLiberté's eye. A bunch of wild-maned, stick thin college kids do some juggling, tell some jokes and make a little money. Aha! An idea is born. For the next decade, Mr. Magid and his original accomplices Howard Patterson (Ivan) Randy Nelson (Alyosha) and Timothy Furst (Feyodor) lead the wave of revival in circus arts, performing at street fairs, theatres, and ferry boats (see their history page for the long but funny story (http://www.fkb.com/history.htm). In 1981 they hit the big-time with a show at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and the rest is history.
This version of the Brothers K, 4Play, starts out a bit worrisome, as only Mr. Magid seems to be allowed to talk. They do some classic bits, with mostly success, and then start to juggle. They're pretty good, but the muzzle on the younger guys inhibits setting up the basic premise of the show – the collecting of the 7 Objects of Terror to be juggled at the end of the show.
About 10 minutes in though, the muzzle comes off, and these silly young pranksters get to flash their wit. The camaraderie that defined the original FKB isn't quite there, and the Tolstoy bit that inspired the names seems to be gone entirely, but all four are skilled improvisers and do a wonderful job of connecting to the audience, particularly the younger ones, who hooted and squealed and laughed at every great joke, and every juggling pin drop.
And more than anything else, that's the fun behind the FKB concept, and the thing that inspired a generation or two of physical comedians and clowns. As Mr. Magid says in his program notes, "It is the possibility of screwing up that is the dark matter of creativity and generates the tension that keeps us at the edge of our seats. Juggling is dropping. Remember, everything that you're about to see is actually happening."
That's a lesson that is valuable in theater and in life – it's the chaos and the mistakes that make us most human. 4Play is a great way for the whole family to have a good time being human.
(4Play plays at the Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane between Macdougal Street and Sixth Avenue, through March 7, 2010. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm and 5pm. Tickets are $10-$50. Running time is approximately one hour and fifty minutes with a 15 minute intermission. To purchase tickets, visit theatermania.com or call 212.307.4100. For more show info visit fkb.com.)