CAMBRIDGE -- More juggling than "The Lion King." More nothing than "Much Ado." More clothes than "Forever Plaid." And, yes, more men than "Menopause: The Musical."
The Flying Karamazov Brothers are back with the most purely entertaining show in either Boston or Cambridge. The title might sound unwieldy, "Life: A Guide for the Perplexed (Convention Edition)," but there is nothing unwieldy about the show, which juggles everything from the standard pins to lubricated kelp, skateboards, Borscht Belt humor, jazz rhythms, Eastern religion, and Western politics.
The unrelated four Brothers are here courtesy of the American Repertory Theatre, which has imported them just in time for some much-needed humor as the Democratic National Convention sets up shop across the Charles, though the politics of the show are not hard-edged.
Similarly, while the overt "story" of the show is about the spiritual questions hovering over Dmitri's (Paul Magid) midlife crisis, the philosophical underpinning of the show owes less to the Brothers Karamazov than the Brothers Marx. "Life is a series of unconnected experiences that make up a connected whole," says one character seriously before adding "which, believe me, you don't want to step into."
Anarchy doesn't quite reign in Cambridge. While the Brothers are not airborne, just about any inanimate object is fair game to take flight, usually landing in one of the marvelously dexterous eight hands onstage. As one of the skits within the story, audience members bring possessions onto the stage and then the audience votes on which three Dmitri is going to juggle. Lubricated kelp, a skateboard, and an open bottle of water were last night's projectiles du jour.
Does this have anything to do with his midlife crisis? Perhaps not. But does anybody care? Definitely not. Their way with delivering a goofy pun as well as catching a misshapen object are their own rewards. They also play music on their own and each other's instruments. One of them might be blowing into a flute or strumming a guitar while another is doing the fingering, all the while keeping a ball in the air.
You wouldn't say that the political element of the show is introduced seamlessly into the proceedings, but nobody minds that either, particularly since the Karamazovs and the Cantabrigians seem likely to be voting the same way. Kerry is sent up for marrying a rich woman. George W. is sent up for stealing an election.
This isn't exactly Jimmy Tingle or Mort Sahl territory. Mark Ettinger segues from his Karamazov character, Alexei, to play a fellow with an Eastern accent teasing Dmitri about the whitening of his beard, calling his new hairs "foreign white invaders." He then gets serious and adds, "Like in Iraq" and chases Dmitri offstage.
The religion is the same brand of humor. Dmitri spends much of the time reading from a book of life supposedly written by Moses Maimonides. "I am what I am," he intones before asking "Isn't this what God said to Moses?" Another brother replies, "No, it's what Popeye said to Olive Oyl."
But it all works wonderfully, particularly when the juggling and joking occur simultaneously. The four are as accomplished at acting as they are at juggling, with Howard Jay Patterson as Ivan seeming to anchor the quartet. In one of the most inspired bits, Patterson and Roderick Kimball (Pavel) play angels hovering around Ettinger, as Dmitri's wayward son, juggling pins around him, which he begins to intercept and then he starts juggling while the other two start drumming on the pins, breaking out into a version of "Hand Jive."
Got that? Words don't do justice to the Karamazov antics. See for yourself.
Ed Siegel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.