When you say that "The Flying Karamazov Brothers are a juggling act," you have told at least four lies.
They do not fly: They ride from gig to gig in a bus that carries a sign on the back: "Warning: Weird Load." And that's the truth.
They are not brothers, and none of them is named Karamazov except on stage.
And, as one of them said after a recent intense session of juggling at the Renaissance Festival in Columbia, Md., "This is not what we really do. We have been saying that for years, but now it's true."
From left to right (when they are standing still, which is seldom, the so-called Karamazovs are really named Howard Patterson ("Ivan"), Timothy Furst ("Fyodor"), Paul Magid ("Dmitri") and Randy Nelson ("Alyosha" -- the one without facial hair). The four men in their late 20s began as part-time jugglers in 1974 but have been working (or playing) at it fulltime for the last four years, drawing rave notices from coast to coast.
"We have no current Smerdyakov," says Nelson, "although through the years there have been a number of false brothers who turned out to be bastards." Literary allusions are part of their stock in trade, almost as much as juggling.
One thing the Karamazovs are juggling during their first visit to Washington is their schedule. At the moment, they are playing evenings at the Round House Theater and daytime on weekends at the Renaissance Festival. Next week they move into the Old Vat Room at Arena Stage, while continuing to be Renaissance men through the first weekend in October. It was at the Renaissance Festival, between performances, that they paused to talk about juggling as a way of life.
Besides objects, the Karamazovs like to juggle words. Nelson explains why: "If you don't juggle very well, or if you juggle dangerous things, you want to spend as little time as possible juggling," Magid elaborates. "Most of the world's jugglers spend a lifetime perfecting their technique, and they end up with a five- or 10-minute act. We can go for two hours."
Asked whether a particular personality type gravitates to juggling, Nelson says that "gravitate is exactly the right word. There are two kinds of people, digital and analog, or you can say passive and active, fussy about details or given to sweeping gestures, yin or yang. College is an over-digitalized experience in an analog world.
"We have four-way balance, with two left-handers and two right-handers and one digital and one analog of each kind. It's good to have the digitals around to balance the analogs." This launches a discussion of the zen of juggling, which harmonizes strangely with a madrigal group that has been doing its Renaissance thing in the background.
"Part of what juggling means to us is balancing these two systems, digital and analog," says Nelson.
"Juggling, by its very nature, makes you tend to be more ambidextrous," says Furst.
"Juggling, in a way, is a sort of Western form of meditation," says Nelson.
"Juggling teaches you about the endless world of possibilities," says Magid. "It connects you with what life seems to consist of -- the interactions of two perpendicular things encountering each other."
"It puts you in touch with the interrelatedness of things," says Furst. "You know how you push here, and the effect comes around over there."
"Lately," says Patterson, "we have been trying to juggle handfuls of water.
It takes a lot of concentration."
"You concentrate on throwing but not on catching," says Nelson. "If you try to concentrate on catching, you change your relationship to what you're doing, and you're likely not to be in the right place at the right time."
"It's getting to the point where a lot of what we do is not visible to the audience -- only to other jugglers," says Magid.
At this point, the spoken counterpoint changes to singing. The madrigal group, having finished its gig, is strolling past, and the Karamazovs decide to serenade them. They begin an Elizabethan madrigal, "Change, then, for lo, she changeth," in perfect harmony -- a remnant of their days as street entertainers, when they developed a variety of material. The madrigal leads into a variation, with a theme that seems slightly out of date now that the Karamazovs are so busy with real, paying jobs.
"If you found us funny, fa la la la,
"Give us your money, fa la la la la la la."
What they are doing, actually, is street-theater -- an art that they cultivated in the streets of San Francisco before they began getting regular bookings on college campuses, in nightclubs, at such events as the Grateful Dead's annual New Year's Eve show and in miscellaneous locations as varied as the Walt Disney Studios and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1974, when they were becoming full-time professionals after two years together on a part-time basis, they walked the streets of San Francisco with a pitch modeled on Jimmy Carter's hand-shaking spiel of that year; "I'm The Flying Karamazov Brothers. I'm running for performer. Don't forget me now."
They became The Flying Karamazov Brothers six years ago, Patterson explains. "We were on our way to our first real gig, at Expo '74, and we were sleeping in a dust field about 30 miles south of Spokane, when the subject of a group name came up. I happened to be reading "The Brothers Karamazov' at the time, and we decided that 'Flying,' -- like the Flying Wallendas or the Flying Burrito Brothers -- would add some glamor to the name."
Since 1974, they have played in such settings as the Mike Douglas Show, the St. Paul Civic Center, Ken Kesey's Perennial Poetic Hoo-Haw, Harvard University and the Miami Beach Convention Center. One experience they remember vividly is juggling their way through a St. Patrick's Day parade in Chicago. "There is nothing quite so sensational, in the original sense of the word," says Nelson, "as marching down the street in a blizzard, juggling flaming torches and saying to yourself, 'Boy, it's hot . . . Boy, it's cold . . . Boy, it's hot . . . Boy, it's cold."
The nucleus of the group had been friends and had fooled around with juggling in high school and college in California, but they drifted off to various jobs after their respective graduations. Patterson was the one who was determined to make a career of juggling and finally persuaded the others to join him. At the University of California at Santa Cruz, where Patterson and Magid were classmates and co-valedictorians, they had developed a juggling routine combined with the recitation of an Elizabethan poem as part of their activities in an under-graduate Commedia dell'Arte club.
"The undergraduate program at Santa Cruz was set up as a sort of reservation for hippies," Patterson explains, "to get them out where they wouldn't bother anyone else. Some students were told, 'You can go to Santa Cruz or you can leave the university.'"
"It's hard to get a job with a Santa Cruz degree," jokes Magid. "We're the only ones using our degree. All the rest are working in bagel factories." Patterson did get one job, briefly, but otherwise his only paid employment has been juggling. "I worked as a garment-cutter for about a month to see what my father had gone through," he says.
The others had more varied careers before becoming jugglers. Nelson (who has a fine arts degree from a Jesuit college) got a job as a systems analyst. Furst was drafted, classified as a CO, and found a job working in the Sanford medical library. Magid worked up and down the coast between California and Alaska as a cook, a pot washer and an assembly-line worker in a Ford plant.
Six years later they have reached a economic status that will show them to give up Renaissance Festivals, which they have now played from coast to coast and as far north as Minnesota. "In the long run, it becomes confining," says one of the brothers. "You can have fun with anachronisms, but you get tired off saying 'Forsooth' all the time."
At the festival, they juggle sometimes on a giant chessboard, which is also used for chess games with living pieces. Ivan opened the show last Saturday by jumping on the stage, shouting "Knight to King's Bishop Five" and leaping to the correct square. The outdoor setting gave them a chance to improvise: "Did somebody throw that butterfly?" "Try to catch it." And the period atmosphere allowed them to scold the audiences as "turkey-leg-fed Reanaissance fops" and act amazed that people were "Drinking 7-Up in the Renaissance."
At the climaxx of a torch-juggling session Nelson (who was otherwise unoccupied) strolled absent-mindedly into the middle of the flaming pattern, remarking to the audience, "This is the part that I like best." He was caught short by a flaming torch whizzing past his nose and pulled back, only to be stopped by a torch flying behind him.
Pinned between the flaming missiles, he stood very quietly for what seemed a very long time, then confided to the audience: "You think you're excited!"