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L’Universe

Granola goofballs the Flying Karamazov Brothers go high-tech in "L'Universe," an otherwise typically surreal, silly and sometimes inspired history of the cosmos, or rather man's historical theories about same. Originally staged at Seattle's A Contemporary Theater, current touring edition is a breezy, not especially educational entertainment.

Granola goofballs the Flying Karamazov Brothers go high-tech in “L’Universe,” an otherwise typically surreal, silly and sometimes inspired history of the cosmos, or rather man’s historical theories about same. Originally staged at Seattle’s A Contemporary Theater two years ago, current touring edition (rejiggered under new director Carys Kresny) is a breezy, not especially educational entertainment for all ages that stays ingratiating even when it goes a little slack.

The nearly 30-year-old quartet (only one of whom is a bona fide original member) undertook a prolonged collaboration with MIT’s Physics & Media research group. The onstage results are a technophile’s delight, if not necessarily the most delightful two hours of Karamazov craziness to date. The one-of-a-kind computerized audiovisual gizmos utilized are neat-o, but occasionally muffle more than amplify the charms of performers whose absurdist-to-lowbrow humor and juggling dexterity don’t need expensive gadgetry to thrill.

Premise is a fast, free-form clomp through theories about the universe, as figured consecutively by Aristotle, Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, Einstein and recent quantum physicists. Those historical personages are portrayed by successive Karamazovs in expectedly burlesque terms, with endearing youngest/newish bro Roderick Kimball as a toga-hunk version of Aristotle, longtime member Paul Magid as a rather Groucho-esque Einstein and so forth.

But this chronological structure hangs very loosely over the evening, which ambles from one amiable set piece to another. Least engaging, curiously enough, are the ones that most rely upon special technology: Sequences where the FKBs utilize elaborate computerized instruments take a long time to explain and aren’t all that theatrically compelling. Nor does the recurrent presence of “Joy” — a sexy-female-voiced “HAL” pseudo-supercomputer whose thoughts are visualized via computer animation on a screen — add much.

It’s no small irony that this high-tech show flies highest when least electronically complex. Some rhythmic ensemble ball-bouncing against a tabletop delights, as does a bit where the performers chime out a melody by striking pendulum-swinging bells. Ditto a climactic scene where the Unified Feed Pattern (an attempt to reconcile Einstein’s and quantum physics’ opposing theories) is illustrated by their improv “randomizing” of juggling patterns.

Those not already up to snuff on such scientific knowhow won’t exactly get a crash-course here; “L’Universe” does more riffing on than cogent explaining of the ideas at hand, with plentiful stimulus to keep younger viewers amused. As ever, the Karamazovs themselves make for charming, loopy company, complete with the usual array of bad puns, silly dances and costumed goofiness.

Design package is colorful, though Christopher Barreca’s steely set framework is a mite cold. Matthew Ostrowski provides live computer-image/sound jockeying at stage left in response to the stars’ antics. Music composed by FKB Mark Ettinger and Douglas Wieselman provides a likable mishmash of genres and song interludes.

L’Universe

Berkeley Repertory Roda Theater, Berkeley, Calif.; 650 Seats; $52 Top

  • Production: An Adam Josiah Epstein presentation, in association with Regina S. Guggenheim, Carys Kresny, Meg McHutchinson and Peter Maradudin, of a performance in two acts conceived and written by Paul Magid and Howard Jay Patterson. Directed by Carys Kresny.
  • Crew: Sets, Christopher Barreca; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Peter Maradudin; sound, Dominic Codykramers; music, Douglas Wieselman, Mark Ettinger; technology design and development, MIT Media Lab's Things That Thing Consortium; additional technology, Circus Systems, Hand2Mouse Studios; production stage manager, Kristina Wicke. Opened April 17, 2002. Reviewed April 25. Running time: 2 HOURS.
  • Cast: <b>With:</b> The Flying Karamazov Brothers.
  • Music By: